Thursday, May 22, 2008

I'm still mad...

Sorry about the lapse in posting. I haven't posted here (or at Seen Through A Glass) much in the past week because I've been busy writing for work and because it's that time of year when parents have things to do for their exceptional kids. My son's leaving for the national finals of the National Catholic Forensics League today; my daughter is winding up her final year of primary school and had her last school concert Monday night. I've been winding up the latest issue of Malt Advocate (a major issue in which we are introducing three new regular features, two of which I'm writing) and an overload of beer writing, while getting ready for five lectures in the next eight days.

None of which feeds your need for Reasons Why the PLCB Should Be Abolished, I know. Just letting you know that we should be back on track soon, picking up where I left off two weeks ago.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Wine blogger wanted

I need a wine blogger.

Look, I'm a beer guy, a whiskey guy. I know them really well. But a major piece of the PLCB puzzle is wine. Wine buyers are probably the folks who are the most majorly pissed-off at the PLCB, and rightly so. But I don't know that much about wine except what I like and don't like. So I'm looking for a PA-based wine blogger who's fed up with the PLCB and would like to write about that.

Send your suggestions, links to blogs, or your names. I'm looking for established wine bloggers, good writers, someone with the chops to find and explain good, solid reasons that the PLCB should be abolished because of how they handle wine. Anyone out there?

Spread the Word!

We've got a good roll started here, but we need to roll it bigger. The blog is already getting 20% of the daily hits I get on my longer-established beer and whiskey blog, Seen Through a Glass, after only two months. But we need a lot more if we're going to get a significant number of people torqued about the PLCB.

I'm asking for your help to Spread the Word about the PLCB Abolition Movement. Pennsylvania doesn't need this outdated system, Pennsylvania doesn't deserve it. We need to get as many Pennsylvanians as possible to realize that. Getting rid of the PLCB is not about "saving a few dollars on alcohol," or selling fancy mail-order wines to elites, or putting bureaucrats and State Store clerks out of work, or selling booze to kids, or any of the things that will be brought up to oppose us. It is about free enterprise, about dignity, about common sense, about the 21st Century, about convenience, about getting government out of an enterprise it should never have been involved with in the first place.

Tell people about this blog. (Believe me, I don't make a dime on this, getting more readers will not make me more money because I get none now; if anything, the time spent on it costs me money.) Tell them about the Reasons you read here. Write e-mails: to your paper, to your state reps, to your friends. Get mad. Think of more Reasons and send them to me. Spread the Word, and we can get this State off the dime and moving out of post-Repeal thinking.

Control is not the norm. We are Americans; we are Pennsylvanians. That shouldn't be a reason for excuses, it should be a reason for pride, and for action. The PLCB robs you of money, of choice, of respect, and of dignity. Why do we put up with that? Yes, it's "only booze," but booze has been around a lot longer than the PLCB. We don't need them to control how we buy wine, we don't need them to control what spirits we choose. Spread the Word.

"Pennsylvania's Most Popular 'Whine'"

I don't want to infringe on any copyrighted material, so I'm not copying/posting it here, but you have got to take a look at this editorial cartoon from Rob Rogers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the PLCB. I saw it in this morning's Inquirer where they ran it as the main editorial cartoon. Pittsburgh's press has been running some very critical reporting on the PLCB; bravo! Now the Inky picked this up... Are we getting a wave here, a rising tide?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"They sure sound like bold thinkers"

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Eric Heyl put a column out a few days ago on the PLCB's $3.6 million makeover that is just too funny and too spot-on accurate to be missed. Go take a look. Laugh for a while, then remember that he's talking about $3.6 million of your taxes (I'm assuming it's mostly PA residents reading this; if you're not, well, just get pissed on principle). Not so damned funny anymore, is it?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Reason #5: For Us, Okay; For You, Forget It

We already discussed how the PLCB has a personality split. One side of the agency wants to sell you booze (gotta make money at the State Store!), the other side wants to control how much you buy and how you drink it. Brilliant idea for a state agency.

But there's another two-sided bedevilment going on at the PLCB. The PLCB always says that they don't make the liquor laws in Pennsylvania, they just enforce them. Yes, that's an extent. Because when they enforce them, they also interpret them. So you'll get interpretations on just what a "case" of beer is, and about how licenses can be apportioned within a county, and ... and what constitutes a State Store, apparently. Because while the PLCB is currently "enforcing" laws that make it illegal to sell beer or liquor at a grocery store, they are also currently considering an "interpretation" that will justify them putting 100 wine vending machines in grocery stores. Really.

Reason #5:

The Liquor Code serves the PLCB, not the citizens of the Commonwealth.

The PLCB is not stupid; not entirely. They see the great opportunities for selling booze in supermarkets; they'd have to be truly blind not t0. The Pennsylvania Liquor code does not allow selling beer in supermarkets (the current fight over supermarket six-pack sales is not really that; it's over whether supermarkets or convenience stores that have restaurant spaces can get a license. I don't see the issue: it's a restaurant that happens to be in a grocery store. Restaurants are eligible to apply for a liquor license. What's the issue?), it limits the retail sale of liquor to State Stores, and limits wine sales to State Stores and Pennsylvania wineries.

But the PLCB wants to get those supermarket wine sales (it doesn't care about beer sales, because it doesn't sell beer). What to do? Someone got a brainstorm: re-define "State Store" to include off-site, remotely-monitored (wait till you hear that explanation), automated self-service wine kiosks. The PLCB wine robots will hold 500 bottles of wine, and the Board wants these automated stands to have measures in place so that no sales will be made to underage or intoxicated people.

How will they do that? Glad you asked. What I understand is that they want you to register to use the kiosks, providing biometric information, like a scan of your fingerprints. Then each kiosk will be remotely monitored -- a person at a remote site will use video and audio links to check you out and make sure you're not drunk before you buy. Because there are a lot of drunks who want to buy bottles of wine in supermarkets, apparently.

Most ludicrous of all, "because the kiosks will be in public settings, 'the PLCB is seeking a solution that prevents the viewing of wines in the wine kiosks by minors.'" (that's from Steve Twedt's article on this in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Because we'd hate for a kid to see a bottle of wine. And get scared. Or excited. Or aroused. Or, God forbid, educated.

Privately-run, no beer solution, no liquor possibility, a limited selection of "popular choice" wines, and an unfair advantage -- AGAIN -- to the state monopoly. What's okay for them -- by their interpretation -- is one thing. And once again, we're all going to be so happy that we get this smidgen of service, that we'll forget what a ridiculous system this is.

The PLCB should be abolished because the PA Liquor Code engenders ridiculous and bizarre ideas like this. Wine vending kiosks are actually advanced retail technology; does anyone think an agency that can't even bring itself to recommend a particular wine or vintage will be able to handle it?

Do you want to buy wine in the supermarket? Do you want to buy wine from merchants who carry the wine you want to buy, when you want to buy it, and who will be only too happy to assist you to pick a great wine to meet your needs, your liking, your budget? Well, my friends, if you do, the answer is not automated kiosks teleoperated by some computer geek hundreds of miles away, recording your fingerprints and every single bottle of wine you purchase...

It's privatization, doing away with the archaic State Store System and allowing liquor stores to open, do business, and flourish or fail on their merits. If one of them has the bright idea of an automated wine kiosk, great, let them run it. But to have the State do it? Are you kidding?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

"PLCB Bashing"

That was the subject line of the following e-mail I just received from a PLCB employee.

The PLCB has provided me with one of the few decent paying jobs in the area for 8 years now. I love my job, I take it very seriously. As far as your comment about the stores not carrying expensive scotch... Store 3516 in Clarks Summit where I work carries Johnny Walker Blue Label and several other scotch whiskies well over the $130.00 mark you stated. Some that are $300.00 I believe.

I'm sick of people like you badmouthing the PLCB. I don't like a lot of their policies either, but think of the families like mine who are very thankful to have a decent paying job so they can put food on the table. Our area is a dead zone for jobs, with more and more companies looking to move work overseas or hire illegal Mexicans at $4.00 per hour. Those are the problems we should be focused on as Pennsylvanians and Americans, not saving a few dollars on alcohol.

My response:

First, the information on high-priced whiskies at State Stores is from the PLCB's website. The Macallan 18 was the highest-priced single malt Scotch whisky carried as a regular item; I missed the higher-priced Johnnie Walker Blue in the blends. My mistake; I apologize for that, and I've corrected it in the post with thanks to you -- unnamed, as I'm not clear what your name is. But according to that site, the Blue is the highest-priced regularly stocked Scotch whisky, at $199.99; there are no other regularly stocked Scotch whiskies between that price and the Macallan 18's.

As for your job, and "bashing" and "badmouthing," and illegal Mexicans... I did say in a comment on the blog, "The hardest part about writing this, getting people to see the problems with the PLCB, is thinking about the effect it could have on people's livelihoods if I were somehow successful." It was something I thought about a lot before starting the blog. I realize that's not much comfort to you, but it is an issue for me. I'll be addressing it in the future.

Are you concerned that you couldn't find a job in a private liquor store if the PLCB system was put out to pasture, or open one yourself? I assume you've got experience. One of the possibilities for solving the problem of putting so many people out of work is using the proceeds from selling the inventory and other assets of the PLCB to offer low/no interest loans to current employees to set themselves up in business. Not as safe a job as your current one, perhaps, but you wouldn't be saddled with the PLCB policies you say you don't like, either. But the PLCB is not a jobs program, and it shouldn't be.

I'm not "bashing" it or "badmouthing" the PLCB, simple-mindedly ranting and raving. I'm presenting reasons why our current system is not ideal, or even a good idea. Take out the PLCB employees and the anti-alcohol forces, and I doubt you could summon 10% support for the PLCB among Pennsylvania citizens.

Is it as important as immigration? Probably not. Is immigration as important as health-care? As important as the environment? As crime? As illegal drug control? As our future energy supply? I don't know. But just because one issue is more important than another doesn't mean the less-important one shouldn't be discussed.

The issue of the jobs currently provided by the PLCB is the thorniest in all of this, and of much more importance than any trumped up "alcohol chaos" that may result from privatization. As this e-mail makes very clear, these are real people, with families to feed. Finding a solution to that issue is the most important part of the puzzle that is the abolition of the PLCB. Ideas are welcome; what do you think of the one I floated above?

There's just one thing I'd like to know. The fellow says he's sick of "people like you badmouthing the PLCB." Who are the "people like you"? What sets them apart? And how do I meet more of them and get their e-mail addresses?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Bit of Honesty

You know...when I was researching the latest Reason, the one on the Emergency Tax, I took a look to see what expensive whiskies the State Stores carry. The most expensive single malt Scotch whisky regularly carried was The Macallan 18 Year Old, at $129.99 (the Stores also carry Johnny Walker Blue, a blend, at $199.99; tip of the hat to a State Store employee who pointed that out, and my apologies). Ha! I thought to myself, anything more expensive is a special order because the State knows its mark-up and tax will make it worthwhile for people to go out-state to buy it!

So I went looking for prices on the Macallan 18, to shame the State on the price of their booze...and didn't I find that Total Wine in Delaware has it for $149.99, and that's also the price that my go-to out-of-state booze source (not that they're allowed to ship to PA, because that would be illegal by PA State law...), Binny's of Chicago, shows on their site.

I guess that means there's only one thing to do...

Reason #1 for keeping the PLCB:

The hugeness of the PLCB monopoly means its buying power can get us a few deals.

Wonder if there are any other such reasons? If there are, and I agree with 'em, I will post them. It's only fair.

Reason #4 -- the 18% Emergency Tax

I remember the first time I visited Johnstown. I was driving in from Pittsburgh, and it had been raining heavily. The sky was still gray and threatening, and local streams and creeks were swollen, brim-full. I mentioned this to a Johnstown resident, and his dead-serious response was, "You might not want to talk about that. We're kind of touchy about that."

Say the name, "Johnstown," and people think "flood." The flood they're thinking of was in 1889, a catastrophe caused by a dam failure, but there were other floods in Johnstown, in 1894, 1907, 1924, and 1977. The biggest flood after the 1889 event, though, was the "St. Patrick's Day Flood" in 1936. Damage was extensive, and the State responded with clean-up and recovery aid. The expenditures were covered by a quickly-imposed Emergency Tax of 10% on all wine and liquor sold in the State Stores.

You may have heard that we're still paying this Emergency Tax. Well, that's not really true; we're no longer paying a 10% Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax. Don't be silly; that was over 70 years ago! No, we're paying an 18% Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax for an "emergency" that ended 71 years ago, because the State raised the tax to 15% in 1963 and then again to 18% in 1968. That's some emergency.

Reason #4:

The Ridiculous 72-Year Old Emergency Tax

You may find this hard to believe, so here's the proof, right off "e-TIDES" (PA's Electronic Tax Information and Data Exchange System). You'll see at the bottom of the page that the cite is "Emergency Liquor Sales Tax Act, Act of June 9, 1936." The emergency has been over for 70 years, and of course, the money hasn't gone to the citizens of Johnstown (or...the contractors hired to help the citizens of Johnstown) for many, many years: it goes to the General Fund. It's just money the State is taking from you every time you buy booze.

The Emergency Tax is an amazing thing, kind of the creamy center of a towering cake of taxes Pennsylvanians pay when they buy booze. First, there's the actual cost of the packaged beverage. The federal excise tax is added at the producer/importer level. Then the fun starts. The State imposes its set mark-up (for "profit", which in the case of so-called "control states" is really an additional tax, since it all goes to the State) of 30%. Now put that luscious Emergency Tax in there, adding 18% of the cost, the federal excise tax, and the 30% mark-up onto your bill. Think that's rapacious? Wait, there's more! That's right, folks, now you get to add the 6% State sales tax (7% in Philadelphia County)!

Let's look at that. Say you get a bottle of 100 proof bottled-in-bond bourbon. Cost from producer: $10. Federal excise tax of just about $2.50 (it's a set amount per gallon of 100 proof liquor; that's why we bought bottled-in-bond):$12.50. The State's mark-up of 30% is $3.75: $16.25. Now add the 18% Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax of $2.93 (note that it's more than the federal tax): $19.18. Top it all off with the 6% sales tax you pay on computers, cars, books, pets, toilet paper (whoops -- turns out PA doesn't tax toilet paper; make that kleenex...which, believe it or not, was what I had there originally, and for some reason, changed it)-- $1.15 -- and you get a grand total of $20.33. That is more than twice the cost of the whiskey.

Please note three things. First, there may be some additional charges in there that I've missed: the PLCB's site does not make it easy to get a total breakdown of charges. If I get better data, I'll add it. Second, this is what's called a "regressive tax." As a flat percentage, it hits poorer people harder by taking a proportionally larger part of their income. (Thanks to Grey Lodge Pub owner Mike Scotese for pointing that out.)

Finally, I hope you noticed that the Emergency Tax taxes the tax: you're paying 18% of both the federal excise tax and the State's "mark-up". Of course, the State sales tax then does that too, taxing the Emergency tax, and effectively taxing the federal tax and the State's mark-up twice. It's sweet, what you can do in business when you write the rules.

Is the Emergency Tax higher than other states' booze taxes? It's actually hard to compare state liquor taxes. Many of them (but not all) are imposed on gallons at a set rate, rather than a percentage, so the tax load is actually lower on high-end booze. Not the case in Pennsylvania, where you're expected to pay 18% on $500 bottles of single malt (and that nifty 30% "mark-up," don't forget that).

The Pennsylvania Tourism & Lodging Association has an official position supporting repeal of the Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax. They point out that the tax, along with the State's monopoly pricing and minimal bulk discounts, puts Pennsylvania restaurants and bars at a distinct price disadvantage.

I can't realistically expect that the state will repeal the Johnstown Flood Tax and leave us with no excise tax on liquor and wine at all. What I would like to see is something more in line with other states. Something like this:

The PLCB should be abolished so that the current compound tax situation of an artificially imposed state "mark-up" of 30% -- a de facto tax -- plus the ludicrously outdated "Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax" could be replaced by a tax system more in line with neighboring states.

Collecting those taxes could be a lot easier, too...but we've got plenty of Reasons to address that. For now, let's zero in on admitting that the Johnstown Flood over. The emergency is a state legislature with a drinking tax problem.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Does anyone at the PLCB know what the word "monopoly" means?

Great story in today's Harrisburg Patriot-News about the PLCB's latest bizarre "Stalinism with a happy face" idea. The PLCB is spending $3.6 million (I hope I don't have to remind you where they got it...) to get guidance on public image, advertising, and store layout. They've contracted with Landor Associates, a San Francisco-based "branding" firm that advises Microsoft, Pepsi, and Levi's, according to the story.

The PLCB is coming off a record year: $1.7 billion in sales, up 7.2% from the previous year. More to the point, the PLCB is a monopoly. They don't need a public image, they're the only damned game in town. If they want you to buy more booze, they're directly contradicting their other main mission: controlling how much booze you buy. And finally, I don't care if Ed Rendell told PLCB chairman Stapleton "Run this place like a business, not a government bureaucracy," it's not a business, it is a government bureaucracy.

That's the whole problem. We don't need the State to be selling liquor and wine, telling us what we can buy and can't buy, where we can buy it, when we can buy it. The State doesn't tell us where to buy gasoline, or jewelry, or guns, or cans of tuna. Prohibition is over, and it's not coming back. The State Store system doesn't make sense for any of the original reasons given for its creation.

So stop spending our money to make this ridiculous proposition more palatable. Spend the money on a plan for a smooth transition to privatization.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Reason #3 -- Where's the Beer?

It's always a struggle when I try to explain Pennsylvania's booze-selling "system" to folks from outside the state. We don't have the 3.2 beer dichotomy some states have, or the ridiculous beer taxes they have in the South (your beer taxes are flippin' ridiculous, and you should tell your state legislature to lower, good luck), or a useless keg registration law. What we have are the State Stores, where you have to go if you want to buy wine and liquor (except for buying direct at Pennsylvania wineries), and that's weird enough.

But when I tell them that you have to go to a different store to buy beer, a privately-owned store called a "distributor," and buy it by the case; or go to a bar and buy it by the six-pack (but only two six-packs at a time)... They look at me like I'm nuts.

Hey, guys, it's not me: it's the Pennsylvania Liquor Code that's crazy.

Reason #3:

Beer, wine, and spirits cannot be sold in the same store.

Why don't the State Stores sell beer? It's not that I want them to. I just don't understand why they don't. Of course, I don't understand why beer distributors can't sell wine.

I can guess. I suspect it's because the State didn't want to be in the business of keeping anything refrigerated, which even they must realize has to be done with unpasteurized draft beer. It might have had something to do with the sheer bulk of beer: $500 worth of beer takes up a lot more room than $500 worth of liquor or wine.

Whatever it is, it's as screwy as every other part of the PLCB and the Liquor Code. (Why do we call it "Liquor Code" and Pennsylvania "Liquor" Control Board, anyway? Wine and beer are great, but they're not "liquor." Boobs. Philistines. Know-nothings. But we knew that.) It's arbitrary, it makes no sense. Perfect!

Tell you the truth, I'd like to see a system of privately-owned "package stores," selling all kinds of booze (any way you want it: cases, singles, kegs, cold, warm, whatever), snacks, maybe a deli, booze paraphernalia (glassware, towels, books, magazines, etc.), and maybe lottery tickets and smokes. If that was as common as a drugstore, I wouldn't care if it wasn't in the supermarket. I'd really rather see booze as a specialty store...but I'm just one guy. I think we can all agree that it would make a lot more sense to have wine, beer, and spirits sales all under one roof, whatever that privately-owned and operated roof might be.

This reason really bugs me because it's arbitrary, because there's no reason given. It also has lead to beer being the red-headed stepchild. For example, the State Stores took credit cards for wine and liquor sales for years before beer distributors were allowed to. The vaunted Chairman, John Newman of Sainted Memory, did wonderful things for wine-buyers in the State: beer got the back of his hand, except for Sunday sales at distributors.

The PLCB should be abolished and the Liquor Code rewritten to put all the booze -- spirits, wine, and beer -- where it belongs: in one place, for sale in any quantity, by private businesses.

This one's pretty simple. Which makes it all the more frustrating.