Saturday, April 18, 2020

Why This Isn't Already Done

This is something I just posted on the "Abolish the PLCB - Rewrite The Code!" Facebook group page (a group you're certainly encouraged and welcome to join). A new member was full of righteous rage and wanted to know how to get privatization and said we needed to force Harrisburg to change this. Frankly, I wish we could. But 12 years of writing and editing this blog, and all the activity that went with it, has taught me patience, the patience needed to wear away a stone. Here's what I've learned, here's how it's got to be done.  

For the new readers: I've been trying to push this rock for twelve years. I've been to Harrisburg to attend hearings and lobbying meetings, I've testified before a joint committee of the legislature once, I've made friends with a number of reporters and fed them info and ideas. Some small progress has been made, but...a reality check is needed. This is an uphill fight, although the PLCB's huge failures in the past month are a great opportunity.

Here's why.

I was so spunky back then.
I had a lot of schemes and ideas when I started working on this back in 2008. The tough truth is that there isn't anything that can be done until a MUCH larger number of voters are actively engaged on the issue. And that's not easy, because of a few factors.

1. People are liable to be embarrassed to stand up for their booze rights. "It's only a drink, it's not important." Polls usually show that people are willing to be taxed more for drinks, even though they already are.

2. Many Pennsylvanians just don't know any better. They've never gone out of state to buy booze, so the State Stores' adequacy is all they know.

Dezinformatsiya...UFCW style
3. The other side, largely through the union that represents the State Store clerks, UFCW Chapter 1776, does a great job of shaming anyone who supports privatization: "You're a drunk! You just want more alcohol! This will cost thousands of family-supporting jobs! The PLCB gives MILLIONS to the state, to police, to communities! There are much more important things that need to be done!" And people back off, because that SOUNDS reasonable.

4. There's a LOT of deeply-believed misinformation and ignorance about the situation. That the PLCB is a cash cow (it's not), that it serves us well (with only 600 stores in a state where 5,000 would be average, how can they?), that it's not illegal to buy booze out of state (it absolutely is). People are constantly amazed about the existence of the Johnstown Flood Tax, they believe it's illegal because "it's a tax on a tax" (completely not illegal to do that), without ever realizing the huge layer cake of taxes and fees that boost the shelf price of booze in PA.

5. The PLCB is absolutely brilliant at assessing the threat of privatization, and doing just enough to make people think they're improving, and the threat decreases.

Despite all this, we will have to get millions of them on board, because the Legislature cannot be moved otherwise.

Democratic legislators block-vote against this; in over 10 years, not one has ever broken ranks that I can recall. Republicans from southeast PA are likely to flip-flop on it: they face more pressure from unions here, and from a highly-organized group of beer sellers who'd just as soon see their competition run incompetently. It's a powerful combo. Speaker Turzai has tirelessly campaigned for privatization (he's retiring after this term), but the Senate has balked on it, and Wolf will not sign a full privatization bill. Without Democratic votes, there's no way to override him.
Privatization? No. HELL no.
The courts won't do anything because of the 21st amendment; states have very broad power to regulate alcohol.

The Board itself is, naturally, only interested in preserving the agency. The three members are traditionally appointed 1 each by the legislative GOP, Dems, and the governor, so no real help there.

THE ONLY THING THAT WILL WORK is getting fellow citizens involved. Writing letters to newspapers, reminding people how badly the PLCB handled literally everything in this crisis, reposting on Facebook.

Like it says at the top of the blog,

"...there was [in 1997] no overarching passion within the General Assembly, or in the public at large, for privatization. Unless and until there is a general hue and cry, it is very unlikely there will be a privatization initiative that succeeds." -- John E. Jones III, former PLCB chairman


Unknown said...

Here in Washington state liquor sales were finally privatized by public referendum with huge financial support from Costco and other retailers that looked to profit from the change. Instead of the legislature acting and implementing change they say back and did nothing while Costco basically wrote the referendum which was passed by the voters. Better for consumers but the law still greatly benefitted large retailers.

Lew Bryson said...

As I have often said, there isn't much about the way Washington State did liquor privatization that I'd recommend emulating.

Anonymous said...

I just spent 30 minutes trying to get thru for the curbside pickup. Busy signal every time. My husband had a virtual happy hour with his friends yesterday evening ( one in Saudi Arabia who drank water, one in Virginia, and another in Philadelphia who prefers beer ). My husband likes his whiskey and I made him one on the rocks with Punt e Mes ( usually he makes his drink for himself but he worked from home late ). He wanted another, but I made it half because we have to ration this!

This is ridiculous. I don’t get on Facebook or other social media ( except this ) and don’t plan to. I tried calling the governor’s office to no avail.

What else can I do?

Lew Bryson said...

Mostly what you can do is communicate your frustration. You have a state representative and a state senator: find their contact sites with this state website, and contact them to let them know you're in favor of full privatization of wine and spirits sales in Pennsylvania, as soon as possible. Tell them the recent emergency has shown you the antiquated limitations of the system, and that your local supermarket has been doing a great job supplying wine, so why not spirits as well? Send that same email to the governor (and you can always call or write a letter: that's probably even better than email).
If you want to do more, write a letter to your local paper. Bring it up to friends when appropriate. Buy your wine at the supermarket (or PA winery), buy spirits at PA distillers. Buy out of state if you feel comfortable doing that. Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians do it every week, and no more than 2 or 3 a year ever face any prosecution for it; those are some really, really good odds! Don't support the system with purchases if you can possibly avoid it.
That's a start. Thanks for asking!