A double shot of liquid courage
Have you heard the phrase "liquid courage"? It's that take-on-the-world confidence one gets when inebriated. The concept never really rang true for me — "liquid stupidity" is more accurate — but it seems state legislators are looking for their own form of liquid courage, and it has nothing to do with blood alcohol content.
They're gaining confidence to take on a powerful foe and deliver to Pennsylvanians a long-awaited victory: liquor freedom.
With 48 other states enjoying some form of private wine and liquor sales, why is it so difficult to convince our government to get out of the booze business? Studies have shown that we aren't safer or more sober with state control. And plenty of Pennsylvanians have conducted their own non-scientific research over at Total Wines in Delaware or at a Trader Joe's in Ohio, concluding that government really need not be in the business of selling alcohol.
Opponents of privatization, such as the United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and Gov. Tom Wolf, have said that the state alcohol system is too profitable to privatize. They fail to mention that almost all of the "profits" earned by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) come from taxes that the state would earn in a private system as well.
And according to an internal PLCB memo made public last fall, rising costs mean the state store system will soon be losing money — despite a 30 percent markup on everything they sell (on top of taxes) and an additional charge per bottle.
Gov. Wolf and the UFCW claim that "modernization" is all that our Prohibition-era system needs in order to succeed. This may sound like a clear-headed compromise, but it's really just a hangover.
Consumers are promised great benefits — better stores, better hours, better selection — but at the end of the day, it's still the government that selects the spirits. Customers will still have to go to different stores to purchase their adult beverages. Bureaucrats, not consumers, decide when and where purchases can be made, and would still be able to raise prices based solely on politics.
To find out why reform has been out of reach for so long, look no further than the UFCW. Union leader Wendell Young is easily privatization's most vocal opponent. As a government union, UFCW can compel liquor store workers to pay dues or fees in order to keep their jobs. This, in turn, grows the financial coffers of the union and allows them to play hardball in Harrisburg.
In the last election cycle, the UFCW gave more than $250,000 to legislative Democrats, Democratic committees, and Gov. Wolf's campaign, according to campaign finance records. Anyone looking for a return on that investment can find it in Wendell Young's gloating statement to PA Independent that "not one lawmaker from the left has strayed to the side of privatization" — despite the fact that the majority of Democratic voters support the concept.
Meanwhile, PLCB officials continue to take advantage of their positions — and of taxpayers.
For the fifth time in the last year, another PLCB official was accused of ethics violations in mid-June. According to the Tribune-Review, former PLCB product selection chief Timothy Fringer allegedly accepted, among other things, concert tickets, Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles tickets, and entertainment at strip clubs from vendors.
If legislators lose their courage and choose to "modernize" instead of privatize, the culture of corruption at the PLCB will remain — a select few bureaucrats will continue to control alcohol products for the entire state. And the political leverage of the UFCW will win out over the public interest once again.
But there's hope for Pennsylvanians: Sen. Scott Wagner has introduced a bill to sell off the state stores and end the state's wholesale control of wine and liquor. And in the House, which passed liquor privatization earlier this year, Speaker Mike Turzai remains a staunch advocate of privatization.
It shouldn't take a double shot of liquid courage to finally end Prohibition in Pennsylvania. With pension deficits, revenue shortfalls, PLCB ethics violations and consistent popular support, this should be a political no-brainer — no matter how much you've had to drink.
— Dawn Toguchi is director of marketing and outreach for the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania's free market think tank.