The liquor law reform debate was put on the shelf for the summer, but the lobbyists who put it there shouldn't pop the champagne corks quite yet. The new session offers an opportunity for Pennsylvanians to gain control of their alcohol policy and dump the stagnant status quo.
Legislators should pour their efforts into creating a system that better serves responsible Pennsylvanians and a broad public good -- not that of any particular business, union or other group. It's past time to shake things up, quit the fear mongering and bring the state's liquor laws into the 21st century.
Hopefully, this extra time will give policymakers an opportunity to reconnect with their constituents and put consumers first.
To achieve pro-consumer reform, Pennsylvania should first remove the state government from the retail business. It simply does not make sense in this day and age for the commonwealth to run liquor stores.
Obviously, alcohol is different than other consumer products, so it makes sense for government to be involved in activities such as abating underage drinking and combating drunk driving.
Beyond these common-sense steps however, the rest of the industry need not be more harshly regulated than other retail trades.
Most of the recently debated reform proposals sought to privatize the liquor retail component, but some were more restrictive than others.
To increase benefits to consumers, lawmakers should maximize the amount of competition between retailers.
That means expanding the ability to purchase retail licenses to would-be-buyers, not just confining it to a privileged few.
Politicians should not continue to protect this broken system that has made some businesses and individuals very wealthy, but instead should level the playing field for everyone.
Privatizing the retail sector would be a huge victory for consumers, who would see significantly higher levels of convenience and services.
But true pro-consumer reform wouldn't stop there.
Policymakers should also remove the state government from the wholesaling business. Currently, before their products reach retailers or consumers, wine and spirits makers are forced to sell their wares to a state-run wholesaler, resulting in higher prices and less selection for consumers. The private sector can and should oversee wholesaling instead.
Even there, mere privatization isn't enough. Beer wholesalers are private companies, but enjoy government-provided protections that ought to be modified. For instance, Pennsylvania currently allows in-state breweries to self-distribute, or sell their products directly to bars and restaurants, but out-of-state breweries cannot do so.
Instead, they are required by law to sell to a wholesaler who can, in turn, sell to retailers. This restriction, whose constitutionality is dubious, increases costs and limits the availability of rare and hard-to-find beers.
Reforming Pennsylvania's alcohol laws also presents an opportunity for overdue improvements, such as legalizing direct-to-consumer shipments. By doing so, the commonwealth would become the 40th state to allow its residents to have wine shipped directly to their home or place of business. And there's no good reason why Pennsylvanians shouldn't be permitted to have beer sent directly to them, too.
However you look at it, Pennsylvania's liquor laws are an absolute mess. It's a system that has unfairly constructed anti-consumer monopolies for both government and private entities.
More than a few people have gotten rich off the system, so it's no surprise that Harrisburg is awash with lobbyists and special interest groups trying to dilute reform efforts and protect their turf. Meanwhile, consumers could end up getting left out to dry.
Lawmakers would do a fine service to the commonwealth's economy and its citizens by rationalizing and restructuring liquor laws to permit real competition -- that would be the best solution for responsible Pennsylvanians who deserve to be able to conveniently purchase a wide variety beer, wine or spirits at an affordable price.
-- Lee Schalk is the state affairs manager for the Na tional Taxpayers Union, which has more than 17,000 members in Pennsylvania.