Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reason #11: It's Your Move

Try to imagine something more frustrating for a licensee, a business owner, than trying, trying honestly and energetically, to do the right thing by The Almighty Liquor Code, only to have the rules change or be re-interpreted, or find out that there's another set of rules you didn't even know about. You'll be crossing your eyes, ready to scream about how you just want to do the right thing if only you could figure out what the right thing is. Hey, that's what lawyers are for, y'know? So pony up, buy one, and go do battle. That's how things get done.

Then you can really lose your mind when your lawyer writes up your paperwork, sends it to Harrisburg, and...
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Reason #11:

Harrisburg Is A Black Hole

I've heard the same story many times from licensees. They've got a perfectly reasonable request, one that's clearly allowed under The Almighty Liquor Code, and they properly make it through channels, and they sit, and sit, and sit waiting for a response. Repeated telephone calls, visits, letters seem to have no effect...and sometimes it just goes too long. An event they needed a special permit for, a beer they tried to get registered -- with the willing assistance of the brewer or importer -- a routine license approval that was the only thing keeping them from opening their doors and doing business...whoops. Sat on the desk too long.

It's an arbitrary time period for these things. Or maybe not; there have been rumors of state legislators using influence to speed up or delay applications. I don't know if any of it's true, but it certainly happens at the federal level -- I used it to get a quicker passport for a sudden business trip a while back -- and what's sauce for the Congressional goose is sure to be sauce for the State Senate gander.

If there has been influence used to speed things up, more power to 'em, anything to push things, but using influence to slow things down? Arrest-worthy. Legislators are public servants, and if they want to serve the public by lighting a fire under some bureaucrat, bully for them. But if you're slowing things down because you've got some squealy New Dry in your district scared of a bar opening on Sunday afternoons, well, sorry, but there's clear law on that in The Almighty Liquor Code: it's legal, get out of the way. And if you're slowing things down to benefit another constituent's business, well, remember what your fifth-grade teacher used to say: "I hope you've got enough of that sweet influence for everyone, Miss Smith."
However, there shouldn't be any influence needed. All that's needed is triage. Some bar wants an exemption to open early once on a Sunday in order to show live Tour de France to patrons? Quick decision, and it ought to be yes: where's the harm? Some restaurant asks for a quick registration on a brand for a new beer they'd like to get for a dinner? That's good for a Pennsylvania business and hurts no one: quick decision, and how much work does it take? (Hint: if it takes too much...your system is screwed, because "brand registration" is just an easy source of money for The State anyway.) Those are quick, clear 'em, just hit 'em with your big "HELL YEAH!" stamp and send 'em back; better yet, do it by freakin' e-mail.

Say there are neighborhood complaints about a nuisance bar: top of the pile, get that crap straightened out. Someone wants to transfer a license: have a set time period for a decision, including public hearings if needed, and stick to it.

We have a PLCB CEO now, right? So why aren't performance standards in place? I hear too many stories from licensees about things sent to Harrisburg and not a word back in weeks or months. These people are not drug dealers, they're business people who want to hire Pennsylvanians.

The PLCB should be abolished because it doesn't even work as well as PENNDOT. Let me tell you: I've lived in six other states, and getting licenses, tags, and titles there was -- every one of them -- a chore, a freaking nightmare. At one point, I told my friends that I was probably going to drop dead in a Maryland DMV line, either from a stroke or old age. Getting things done with driver and vehicle registration is one of the best things Pennsylvania government does, and they do it with a beautiful combination of private business and efficient bureaucracy. Why can't the PLCB learn a lesson?

Handle the paperwork, make the decisions, keep records, and get more things online. It's 2008, fergodssake, and you can't even create an online ordering system that works; Amazon's been doing it for over ten years!

If things take so long because there are so many ambiguities in The Almighty Liquor Code, could you tell us? Then maybe we'd push the legislature to fix it. Things can be efficient and still be fair. But when things are this slow, it's not fair to anyone.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Lew, you're a whisk(e)y buff, maybe you can tell me. How does it work if you join the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Pennsylvania? Their website says they will arrange things through a seller of fine spirits, but they don't say how, whether the (in)direct shipment surcharge applies, and if the states obscene tax rates apply.

Although, it would be cool if the LCB *joined* the SMWSA so all Pennsylvanians could SLO Society whiskies, but doing something like that counts as 'customer satisfaction' which I'm sure they're not allowed to do.

Lew Bryson said...

Well, I don't know how or if it would work -- I'll try to find out -- but I do know one thing: believe it that the State's "obscene tax rates" would apply!

sam k said...

Sorry to go off-topic here, but your mention of licensees brings up something about the licensing system in PA that really galls me.

When someone applies for a bar, restaurant, or distributor license that comes available, say due to an increase in population, Pennsylvania sells that person a license to trade in alcohol for a nominal fee. That license then becomes the personal property of the licensee. The licensee can make money from the sale of alcohol until such time as they decide to exit the business.

At this point, instead of the license reverting back to state ownership, the licensee gets to sell what is essentially state property AT A PROFIT, many times an obscene one. (Licenses in Centre County regularly sell in the $250,000 range.) The state, in these situations is CREATING WEALTH for an individual at the expense of the state.

The same model has now been used for casino licenses, and the taxpayers of this state are footing the bill. These licenses could conceivably be sold numerous times by the state over the life of the license, providing revenue over and over again, instead of lining the pockets of the licensee by handing them the title to the Mercedes.

Lew Bryson said...

Jeez, it's all off-topic on this one... You're getting ahead of my Reasons schedule, Sam, but yeah, that's part of why the State's licensing system is seriously broken and needs seriously fixed.

Bill said...

In the situation that sam k describes, abolishing the PLCB wouldn't be a necessary step -- you'd just have to write a law that says each issued license reverts back to the state when no longer needed by the licensee.

Not that I'm disagreeing with the main premiss of the blog. Or agreeing either. I've lived in NH and VT, which have state-bought booze, and can't say my drinking life was arguably different from my drinking life in CA or IL. It sure sounds like things are messed up in PA, but I wonder if other gov't run set-ups could give free-market set-ups a run for their money. Lew, maybe one of your paid pieces could discuss distributor consolidation and its effect on consumer choice, or examine whether all state-run buying/distributing programs are nightmares.

Lew Bryson said...

you'd just have to write a law that says each issued license reverts back to the state when no longer needed by the licensee.

No way it's going to be that simple, unfortunately. No matter who created the value of the license, there are bank loans based on that value as collateral, lives banked on it. The legislature won't just take that away by fiat (even though that's exactly where it came from).

As to why the PLCB is so screwed compared to places like NH... In New Hampshire, the state liquor stores are set up to sell as much booze as possible to make as much money for the state as possible so they don't have to have an income tax. Simplifying, but mostly, that's it. In PA, the PLCB has that dual-role problem: they exist to sell us the booze we need, but also to keep us from getting the booze we want. Not surprisingly, they fail at both.

Joe Roberts, CSW said...

OK... this is fast becoming my favorite blog of all time!

Bill said...

Well, I'm not arguing that the PLCB isn't messed up -- it obviously is. It's just that, now that the project has gone on a bit, I'm curious as to what comes after abolishment, and wonder whether free-market trends will be an automatic improvement over a different government model. I don't know if free market's your preference, even -- I just know that personally, one of the good things this blog has done for me is make me weigh my experiences in different states, and conclude that my first assumption (go free market!) hasn't always proved to be better in practice. Doesn't mean that gov't-run is better, but it does suggest that it can work as well as free-market in some cases. I'm not advocating one way or the other, just surprised that "state-run" doesn't necessarily mean "awful."

I'm patient -- I assume you'll address what's next once you wind up the reasons to abolish. But I'm sure you don't mind someone suggesting that for many of the reasons you give, reasonable folks might conclude one could swap in "fix" for "abolish". Your arguments can be strong and well-thought-out, but that doesn't mean they lead to just one solution. The strategy of starting with a solution, then providing all the reasons why it's the only solution -- it reminds me of the folks you call "New Drys," whose solution to the troubles that alcohol may bring is prohibition... even though there are other answers (as you frequently point out), many of which might be better than prohibition. *wink*

Lew Bryson said...

Actually, Bill, I have made some suggestions on what to put in the vacuum caused by an abolishment of the PLCB in Reasons #2 and #6: split up the necessary functions -- licensing and inspection, tax collection, enforcement -- among the appropriate state agencies, rewrite The Almighty Liquor Code to simplify it and liberalize it, and let the free market go to town.

I am a free market kind of guy, and if that means the people, the customers, demand a booze-purveyance system that doesn't put a fine selection of bourbons in my town, well...I'm no worse off. But I balk at continuing a government-run retail system. Just not right, especially with the written-in morality assumptions that are currently in The Almighty Liquor Code.

Right now, though, yes, I'm mostly concerned with getting people angry enough to want to change things. Complacency is the enemy.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Bible-thumping Baptist, I live in Pennsylvania, and I drink alcholic beverages regularly. I agree the PLCB is a relic of the temperance movement and should be abolished.

My horror story:

I was planning to to buy a $360 bottle of scotch, but it was an SLO with a minimum order of 6 bottles.

I instead took by business elsewhere. I ordered it off the internet from a private retailer. Since they don't ship to Pennsylvania, I had it sent to my uncle's house in New Jersey.

Can you set up a way to make donations to lobby the State legislature to do something, or maybe collect signatures for a ballot initiative?