The "secret plan" that the Commonwealth Foundation leaked last month came out in the open yesterday -- minus the blatant 'future profits' bond issue scheme -- and for some reason, the Inky decided that this was the most important story of the day. Odd choice, made even odder when the reporter -- Angela Couloumbis -- apparently seemed to think that the PLCB's ideas for transforming the agency through a series of legislative changes were great stuff. There wasn't a negative word in the whole story, and Chairman Jake Corman's beautiful wind-up question was lost:
“I hear you saying that you want to be more like a private business. That begs the question of why not just privatize like 31 other states,” Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, told agency officials as they wrapped up their appearance.Couloumbis paraphrased that as
And while Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre), who chairs the committee, wondered whether Pennsylvania should fall in line with 31 other states and privatize wine and liquor sales, he acknowledged: "I don't have people knocking down my door for privatization."Well, honestly, no one's going to knock down any doors for privatization. This issue is most important to licensees; most of whom I've talked to would purely love to have private stores that would deliver to their bars and restaurants, and actually know something about wines, spirits, and business, and they're not going to chance rubbing the PLCB the wrong way; not happening. To us, well, I'd like to see privatization, but I'm not going to Harrisburg to demand it. (Write? You bet. Call? Sure, if it will help! And you should too!)
But more importantly, when a legislator says "That begs the question," it's more substantive than...wondering. "That begs the question" is the legislative, legal equivalent of "Well, duh." Corman's response is just like my response to the PLCB's wowser statements about how convenient the wine kiosks are: Really? Convenient? Compared to picking a bottle off the shelf? Get serious.
Compare this story to this one in the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader. "Again and again, legislators grilled liquor board members on how the agency operates, on their efforts to make the LCB more consumer friendly and whether a privatized system would result in increased access to alcohol by minors." (Both stories missed this one, which I got at Statehouse News.com: "State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, said many of the PLCB’s requests would double as arguments in favor of privatization.“Those decisions are perhaps best left for business. It can be more nimble with decisions to be made in reaction to market conditions,” said Smucker.)
Meanwhile, Couloumbis just repeats everything PJ Stapleton suggested -- longer Sunday hours at more stores, exemption from civil service rules, change the mark-up, and direct shipment of wine (and good though that would be...what the hell's it got to do with the PLCB's so-called business model?) -- while adding slurp-slurp-"I love the union!" quotes like this:
Sen. Jim Ferlo (D., Allegheny) called the agency "a great public asset" and said privatizing would be financially "foolhardy." This year, the agency is kicking $105 million just in profits into the state treasury, he and others noted.There have been pro-PLCB editorials in Pennsylvania newspapers over the past 6 months, I'll admit that. But has anyone else noticed that every single one of them was written either by a current or retired State Store employee, a union official (I'm looking at you, Wendell W. Young IV), or a Democrat (and therefore presumably pro-organized labor) legislator? I haven't seen a single one written by anyone else.
This story misses the point. Stapleton's suggestions are desperate attempts to pass the blame to the Legislature and hammer down all the nails that are sticking up: too few stores (longer Sunday hours, more open on Sunday); crappy wine selection (you can get it yourself, we don't care!), prices too high (it is not cheaper in New Jersey; we changed the mark-up and lowered the price! (for a year...till you forget all about privatization...)), and unhelpful, untrained clerks (deep-six the civil service rules so we can hire wine-savvy people...for a year...till you forget all about privatization).
People! We've seen this before! When Newman took over as chairman, people hated the state stores. He made some small changes, gave us some deals on some good wines, and we forgot about privatization... And what happened? Same Shit, Different Governor: Rendell created a $150K job out of nowhere to run the liquor stores (apparently because PJ Stapleton was tired of being asked questions about wine) and gave it to an out-of-work legislator...and the system immediately began sliding back into the craphole Newman had started to winch it out of.
But the truth is, Stapleton's right about one thing. The real problem is The Almighty Liquor Code. It stipulates this moronic system, and if Stapleton wants to keep his plum job (why not? It's found money), and save all the union jobs, changing the code is the way to go. My question: is it simpler to change it Stapleton's way...or to cut the State Store System out entirely. Chop-chop!
Or another thought: How about we leave the State Store System in place, as is...and simply add an equal number of private liquor store licenses, and a number of private wholesalers. The State Stores can't buy booze from the private wholesalers; the private stores can't buy booze from the state. Bars and restaurants can buy from whoever they want. It's cheaper and more certain than doing endless studies; it's empirical. We just let it run in parallel for five years.
Does anyone doubt the outcome?