Sunday, April 27, 2008

Reason #2 -- The Two-Headed Monster

Mutations occur all the time in nature. Two-headed calves, wingless birds, albino alligators: they're not normal, they're not how things were meant to be, and they rarely survive without being kept alive by human interference.

Kinda like the two-headed monster called the PLCB.

Reason #2:

Buy More Booze! (But Don't Drink It!)

Is it any wonder that the PLCB is such a second-rate purveyor of booze? It's like Wang Chi says in Big Trouble in Little China: "My mind and my spirit are going north and south!" On the one hand, the PLCB is supposed to be making sure that Pennsylvanians don't drink booze in any illegal (or immoral) ways, or drink too much of it, or drink it before they're of legal age, or buy it without paying the full load of taxes. But on the other hand, the PLCB sells all the wine and liquor in the state (except for the small amount sold at Pennsylvania's wineries), and the more they sell, the more money they can give to the state (and insure their continued job survival).

Or, as they put it in the PA Liquor Code:

This act shall be deemed an exercise of the police power of the Commonwealth for the protection of the public welfare, health, peace and morals of the people of the Commonwealth and to prohibit forever the open saloon (can you say "Repeal-era language"?), and all of the provisions of this act shall be liberally construed for the accomplishment of this purpose. ("Liberally construed" means, I assume, that if the local enforcement agent can find a way to hassle you, he will...and more about that in the future.)

and furthermore,

The provisions of this act are intended to create a system for distribution that shall include the fixing of prices for liquor and alcohol and controls placed on prices for malt and brewed beverages, and each of which shall be construed as integral to the preservation of the system, without which system the Commonwealth's control of the sale of liquor and alcohol and malt and brewed beverages and the Commonwealth's promotion of its policy of temperance and responsible conduct with respect to alcoholic beverages would not be possible.

(I would invite all the Christian folks who find a religious bias against booze to consider the contradictions inherent in this situation, specifically in Matthew 6:24: "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other." Sounds like the quandary of the PLCB, right there in the holy writ.)

What's it gonna be, guys: sell sell sell, or are we putting an end to the scourge of demon rum? I don't think it's fair to ask an agency to do both. It's got to cause strain on the brain. I know it does for me. In politics, in research, this is called conflict of interest (yes, in journalism, too, but let's keep that riveting discussion to other blogs), and this is a direct, no-question-about-it conflict of interest: Buy our booze so we make money for the state, but don't buy booze so the (how'd they put it?) "public welfare, health, peace and morals of the people of the Commonwealth" are protected.

This conflict of interest is enshrined in statute. The PLCB is tasked with both jobs. It would be like tasking the PA Department of Agriculture with selling a ton more PA-produced cheese and meat and butter while also making them responsible for encouraging Pennsylvanians to eat a healthy diet full of green leafies. We don't do that: the PA Dept. of Health is responsible for that kind of diet recommendation. Besides, a healthy diet can include cheese, meat, and butter; it's the amounts that are the issue... just like alcohol consumption.

So why isn't that "consume alcohol in a responsible manner" job part of the Department of Health? Why isn't enforcement of licensing part of the Department of Revenue? Why don't we leave criminal enforcement to the State Police and local law enforcement instead of running it through the all-too-autonomous Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement and the PLCB's all-too-lazy judges?

There are a number of reasons, but I believe, at the base of it, it goes back to two things. First, Pennsylvania's liquor code is still mired in the era of Prohibition and Repeal, and the same patronizing attitude towards "public morality" that I noted in Reason #1. But second, and just as important, is that the State Store System provides a huge chunk of cash to run an anti-alcohol bureaucracy, something that makes it look like this is all self-funding.

Wrong. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that government revenue is fungible. The money coming into the PLCB coffers could just as easily go to the Department of Health as stay in PLCB hands for anti-alcohol programs; it's an entry in a spreadsheet, not a bag full of cash. Split off those functions -- after first determining whether any of them are worthwhile (this college-focused program actually has some excellent components), or if they're ridiculous anti-alcohol propaganda -- and assign them elsewhere. Then the agency won't be going in two different directions at once.

Even better...split off those functions and do away with the PLCB's retail function altogether, so the State isn't in the booze business.

But that's a topic for another day. For now, let's stick to putting the two-headed monster out of its misery.

The PLCB should be abolished because it is simultaneously responsible for selling legal alcohol beverages, and for discouraging their purchase. The health functions of the agency should be assigned to the Department of Health; the enforcement functions should be divided between the Department of Revenue and the State Police; a greatly overhauled and simplified licensing function could be the job of a much smaller sub-agency at Revenue. Taxation, of course, would be handled by Revenue and the individual privately-owned licensed retail booze outlets.

All of this pre-supposes a complete re-writing of the PA Liquor Code. All I can say is that it's about time...and yes, that's also a topic for another day; quite a few other days, actually.


Kevin said...


As for rewriting the laws here is a site that has been around for some time.

Listed in with the "dumb laws" is the state store law. Iget a kicke out of reading the laws from time to time but it shows how a bureaucracy slows down the legislative process which leaves little time to change these laws.

I guess this just illustrates the hill that must be climbed but I think Pennsylvanians are ready to climb it.

Anonymous said...

I thought the enforcement end of their duties had been passed to the PA State Police years ago. I'm pretty sure the days are gone when a bar would be raided by PLCB agents. Or are you referring to another aspect of enforcement?

Lew Bryson said...

As I understand it, Sam, enforcement duties are largely done by State Police (manpower and, well, armed force, not to put to fine a point on it), but there are PLCB enforcement agents in as well. Why not just use the Staters? It's a solid constabulary, well-trained and with an excellent reputation. They're asked to do a lot, but abolishing the PLCB should free up some money.