And whose fault is that?
The Politicians' Plaything
The Pennsylvania Liquor Code (hereafter referred to as "the Code") is a plaything of various interests in the Pennsylvania legislature. The most recent example of this kind of thinking is the whole Sheetz/Wegmans uproar, in which politicians who are aligned with either the beer distributors or the New Drys say they are contemplating changes to the Code to keep beer out of grocery stores. Now you'll note that nothing has actually happened yet...and you'll also note that the "six-pack bill" is still diddle-fiddling around in committee.
It's been my experience that no changes to the Code are ever simple. I remember that when the Code was changed to allow beer distributors to accept credit cards -- wow! -- I talked to the legislator who introduced the bill. She told me that it was initially one sentence that would be added. By the time everyone was done tacking things on? "Pages," she said.
The legislators appear simultaneously fascinated and terrified by changing the Code. Fascinated, because the State's monopoly power with wine and liquor sales (and yes, "monopoly" power over beer sales, because you cannot sell beer in PA without a state-issued license) gives the legislators such opportunities to reward or punish groups and individuals, or raise oodles of tax revenue (the PLCB, after all, didn't institute or increase the Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax). Terrified, because almost anything you do to booze law is going to piss off some constituency.
Sometimes it's not the Legislature, it's the Governor. For reasons unknown (because I'm pretty sure the reasons stated weren't the most important), Governor Rendell suddenly added a highly-paid CEO to the PLCB's towering structure of managing bureaucrats in late 2006, a post that was filled by an out-of-work legislator, apparently with no interview process. The appointment stunk of patronage, and precipitated the resignation of Jonathan Newman, possibly the PLCB's most popular Chairman ever (words that might otherwise never have been strung together in that order...I mean, the mind boggles). It's unclear why the position was needed, but at $100,000+ a year, we've got it to pay for, you and me, taxpayers. Plaything. Patronage source.
And some of the stuff doesn't even make sense. Take a look at this one, for example, a change that was added to the infamous "case law" section of the malt beverage sales part of the Code in 1996:
(1) To salvage one or more salable cases from one or more damaged cases, cartons or packages of malt or brewed beverages, a distributor or importing distributor may repackage consequent to inadvertent damage and sell a case, carton or package of identical units of malt or brewed beverages.So...what this means is that if a distributor dropped a case of Sly Fox Dunkel Lager and a case of Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, for example, and three cans from each case burst, he would be forbidden by law to combine those two cases and sell a mixed case. He would be forced to send them back to the wholesaler. God help him if he were crazy enough to mix the cases on purpose, because, you know, chaos might result.
(2) Repackaging is permissible only to the extent made necessary by inadvertent damage. Repackaging not consequent to damage is prohibited.
(3) The term "identical units" as used in this subsection means undamaged bottles or cans of identical brand, package and volume.
What drives this kind of meddling, making the requirements of a wholly unloved law even stricter? I don't know, because the legislator who proposed it retired and went into lobbying (for a medical group, so the obvious answer doesn't apply).
What I do know is that the Code has rarely been touched by the legislature with results that made things simpler or better for the consumer...the consumer, of course, better known as the taxpayer, or the voter, or you. The upside of this is that while we are virtually powerless to affect the actions of the bureaucrats at the PLCB, we can do something about the legislators. All that's required is passion. Passion for privatization, passion for simplification, a passion for Pennsylvania's alcohol policy to enter the 21st Century. As it is, we're barely past 1934.
The PLCB should be abolished because the Code would be better off simplified and streamlined, without an entrenched, unneccesary, and expensive bureaucracy to serve as a patronage pit for politicians. Do away with the PLCB: privatize booze sales, put licensing and inspection in the hands of the Dept. of Agriculture, tax collection in the purview of the Dept. of Revenue (they've got some experience with that), put the anti-alcoholism and underage drinking prevention programs under the Dept. of Health, and fully hand over enforcement to the State Police. Give a re-write of the Code over to a commission that includes interested consumers for a change, and charge them with writing a simpler, more understandable Code.
You'll lose the revenue stream from the mark-up in the State Stores (and we could stand to change the Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax to a more reasonable amount (and God knows, a better name)), but you'd make up a lot of it by getting the PLCB payroll and lease payments off the books, and getting more taxes on sales made in PA rather than across the border. Offer early retirement to PLCB employees, bump them up in hiring preference for other state jobs, offer them low/no-interest loans to start their own stores, and, eventually, realize that this was a business that the State should never have been in at all, and that this is not an employment plan.
It would be complicated, and probably messy, but only for a while. More to the point, it would be the right thing to do. There's a feeling of reform in the air in Pennsylvania; why not blow that wind of change through the barroom and liquor store, while we're at it?