Wednesday, March 20, 2013

No Good Options On Alcohol

For awhile now I've been laboring over a coherent opinion on whether or not Pennsylvania should privatize alcohol sales.  As a Democrat, it's possible that you'd think my opinion would clearly be that we should not privatize alcohol sales.  You would be incorrect.

This is not to say that I agree with Governor Corbett's plan.  I don't.  It is, to put it bluntly, a really stupid plan.  After all, if you're really serious about alcohol reform and you really want to privatize alcohol sales, why not write a completely new law, or set of laws, and then scrap the current system?  Why amend our current system?

Before I talk more about the opinion that I'm forming, let me tell you what kind of drinker I am, because I think it goes a long way toward forming that opinion.  I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, or a beer or two with friends.  There are times when I may have a glass of wine with dinner every night for a week.  There are times when I may drink no alcohol at all for weeks on end.  This is all by way of saying that I enjoy a drink if it's convenient or I'm in the mood, but it's not really that big a deal in my life.  I don't really mind that you can only buy wine and liquor in state stores.  This fact is, at most, somewhat inconvenient.  For me, there's no personal stake and so forming an opinion up to this point has been difficult.

Look, people who work in state stores have decent jobs and they get paid reasonably well.  I don't want them to lose that, but I also don't necessarily agree that the Commonwealth should be in the business of both selling and regulating alcohol.  Some people have put to me the argument that having wine and liquor available only in state stores (and, for wine, some wineries and winery stores) makes alcohol less available and thus lessens alcohol consumption.  From all the data that I have found, Pennsylvania is squarely in the middle of the road when it comes to alcohol consumption.  We don't get mentioned on lists that discuss states where people drink the least.  We don't get mentioned on lists of people that drink the most.

The decision that I've come to very recently is that we are offered two choices: the Democratic legislators who would rather we keep the state store system and the Republican legislators who want to privatize...well...everything.  These are crappy choices.  These are stupid choices.  HB790 left committee after winning on a completely party-line vote and what exactly are we getting?

If this were a world ruled by logic then Republicans, who champion privatization at all costs, should be backing options that actually open up competition.  They aren't, though.  The bill to begin with wasn't going to give us full-scale actual free market actual competition, but it was closer than it is now that Rep. Mark Mustio (R-Allegheny) has added a 35 page amendment to it.  A what?  Yes.  35 pages.  What's in there?  Well the bill now precludes pharmacies, convenience stores, grocery stores, and big-box stores from selling beer unless they also have a restaurant license, which might not be a big deal if we weren't still keeping the disastrously stupid county quota system in place.  This means that now grocery stores have to compete with actual restaurants for liquor licenses and if you just said to yourself "that's really stupid" then you are correct. Oh don't worry though, because gas stations can still sell liquor...but not beer...without a restaurant license.

Under the new bill beer distributors would be able to pay $1000 to be able to sell beer in six packs (or other less-than-case-or-keg quantities) and restaurants could be retail licenses for $500 and beer distributors will get first crack at licenses to sell wine and liquor (because for whatever reason they deserve special consideration.  You know, businesses get special consideration from Republicans but not actual people.)  What this bill in no way even attempts to fix is the endlessly dumb county quota system which allows only one tavern license for ever 3,000 persons.  This isn't such a big deal in Pittsburgh or Philly, but out here in the hinterlands (yeah...hinterlands) it's another story.  We're talking about licenses selling for over $500,000.  Does that sound insane to you?  It should.

Okay, so what about the State stores?  They're gone, right?  Well, after awhile anyway.  State stores will stick around until they are outnumbered in a county by private alcohol retailers 2 to 1 at which point they'll be phased out county by county.

I think Rep. Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) hit the nail directly on the head when he said "People want convenience, this legislation delivers chaos."  This bill is a total clusterfluff.

Understandably, restaurant owners don't want their liquor licenses to go down in value.  Right now they're a commodity.  They shouldn't be, but they are.

Oh hey!  Do you know what I haven't addressed here while I've been blathering on about the free market and competition and licenses and crap? The public good.  Yeah, our legislators haven't addressed it either.  This bill doesn't in any way address public health concerns.  The limits to alcohol sales aren't about public health, they're about pandering to the special interests of the alcohol industry and we don't even get healthy competition out of it.  So, thanks House of Representatives, for all your hard work.