Friday, March 15, 2013

Privatization is Not a Piñata

Looks like the Legislature's been here...
I'm looking at HB790, the proposal that Governor Corbett has put forward for privatization of the the State Store System, and it's becoming clear what the Legislature is in this for: the money. It's not about us, it's not about doing the right thing, it's not about doing what we want, it's about the money.

It's about campaign donations from the unions and businesses, it's about the tax revenue, it's about the shiny promise of a billion bucks in "windfall" money from license fees and wholesaler fees and higher fines and continuing fees... And like I always tell people in other states when their legislators want to raise booze taxes, where do you think all that money's going to come from? Duh, guys: out of your pockets. Because the wholesalers and the retailers aren't going to eat that increase (and no reason we should expect them to), it's part of the price of goods. So the higher the license fees...the higher the prices. It's just a tax under another name. Why, much as I'm pissed about Representative Taylor's planned amendment for HB790, at least he recognizes that, and lowered those fees.

The problem is that the Legislature doesn't look at the booze business like we do: producers and wholesalers and retailers all bringing the wines, spirits, and beers we love to shelves near us, hopefully sold by folks who have the same kind of passion for it that we do (or, hey, by guys who want to make picking up the basics quick and easy). They don't look at it like those in the industry do, as a fair business that makes a decent profit and pays good wages. They don't even look at it like MADD and the neo-prohibitionists do, as the devil's handmaidens, selling pure liquid evil.

No, the Legislature looks at the booze business -- brewers, distillers, vintners, importers; wholesalers, retailers; bars, delis, restaurants, taverns, stadium concessions -- as a big piñata, stuffed full of revenue, the money that makes things work in Harrisburg. Yes, the money that builds roads (and drips down to corrupt the fat cats), and pays for the State Police, and higher education, and state parks, and so on and so on, and it's also the money that gets doled out to make friends happy, and pay for patronage work, and all the semi-shady crap that's been going on in's all revenue, and that's really how the Legislature sees the booze business: a piñata, dangling in front of them, bulging with bucks, and the stick's in their hands.

Step right up, Senator! See the beer distributors, gorged with the fruits of their semi-monopoly? WHACK! The bars, making money in cash, helped along by the limited competition the licensing system creates? WHACK! The wholesalers, a layer of markup forced onto the others by three-tier laws -- WHACK! -- the brewers, newly successful craft brewers and the roaring Yuengling -- WHACK! -- Pennsylvania's wineries, ignored by the State Store but making people happy with festival fun -- WHACK! --the new distillers, better teach them how it works before they get too big -- WHACK! -- and the grocers and drugstores, wow, new blood! -- WHACK! WHACK!


And then...the piñata breaks. The revenue tumbles out! Oh boy, grab it, shovel it into your committee bags, scoop it up to take home to your campaign contributors! Don't worry about the broken shell of the piñata. Don't worry; the system has limped along for decades, made to work by dedicated people who worked within the ridiculous cage of complicated laws you made, who did their best to try to bring the citizens what other states' peoples took for granted. It doesn't matter if you don't get this right: you've been ignoring what's wrong with the State Store System for over 40 years, you can ignore the mess you're going to make with privatization, too.

Don't let this happen. Call your representatives, email them, visit them if you can. Go to Facebook, tell Representative Taylor that you want real privatization, not some watered-down "modernization." Here are some talking points, bullet points, really.
  • License fees are too damned high.
  • There are too many different types of license, and the mistake of the "case law" is repeated in multiples with all the different arbitrary limits on how much each license can sell in one transaction.
  • Beer distributors should not be charged a special fee to sell sixpacks, and there shouldn't be a minimum sale of a sixpack: do away with these ridiculous minimum and maximum sales altogether.
  • Privatize fully, NOW. Give them 6 months
Don't break the system to get at all the money inside. Free it up, and collect the extra taxes you'll get when people no longer feel the need, the urge, to avoid the screwed-up mess we have and buy across the border.

And most of all...there is no windfall. If the State Store System really were the "valuable public asset" the unions keep trying to tell us it is, some company would be offering you money to take it over and run it. It's not. It's an annoyance. The people of the state despise it, and can't wait to see it gone. Forcing the new licensees to pay for it is just...whacking the piñata.

The State Stores have had 80 years to get it right. They haven't, they won't. Game over. PRIVATIZE.


Anonymous said...

Taylor's FB page

Rufus said...


What exactly is your position on HB 790? You recognize the fees are much worse without the amendment. However, you encourage a vote on the bill as it stands.

The bill, as it stands, will never be passed as a law. The fees are out of control. It's a convoluted mess that will make the alcohol system significantly more complicated than it already is. It will reduce customer convenience and choice even more by artificially pricing business and competition out of the market.

The government is giving us two choices: either nothing changes or radical changes that will make things worse. Do you want the government to break one of your legs or both legs? That's our "choice."

Lew Bryson said...

I want the bill to get out of committee to the full House, Rufus. I don't want Taylor amending it. I want the full House getting a shot at it. Taylor's amendment will not privatize the wholesale business; that's a non-starter for me.
The bill as proposed needs work, but not the kind of work Taylor wants to do on it. So yeah, vote it out of committee, and get to work on it.