Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reason #11: It's Your Move

Try to imagine something more frustrating for a licensee, a business owner, than trying, trying honestly and energetically, to do the right thing by The Almighty Liquor Code, only to have the rules change or be re-interpreted, or find out that there's another set of rules you didn't even know about. You'll be crossing your eyes, ready to scream about how you just want to do the right thing if only you could figure out what the right thing is. Hey, that's what lawyers are for, y'know? So pony up, buy one, and go do battle. That's how things get done.

Then you can really lose your mind when your lawyer writes up your paperwork, sends it to Harrisburg, and...


..... ..




........................................ nothing happens .....

Reason #11:

Harrisburg Is A Black Hole

I've heard the same story many times from licensees. They've got a perfectly reasonable request, one that's clearly allowed under The Almighty Liquor Code, and they properly make it through channels, and they sit, and sit, and sit waiting for a response. Repeated telephone calls, visits, letters seem to have no effect...and sometimes it just goes too long. An event they needed a special permit for, a beer they tried to get registered -- with the willing assistance of the brewer or importer -- a routine license approval that was the only thing keeping them from opening their doors and doing business...whoops. Sat on the desk too long.

It's an arbitrary time period for these things. Or maybe not; there have been rumors of state legislators using influence to speed up or delay applications. I don't know if any of it's true, but it certainly happens at the federal level -- I used it to get a quicker passport for a sudden business trip a while back -- and what's sauce for the Congressional goose is sure to be sauce for the State Senate gander.

If there has been influence used to speed things up, more power to 'em, anything to push things, but using influence to slow things down? Arrest-worthy. Legislators are public servants, and if they want to serve the public by lighting a fire under some bureaucrat, bully for them. But if you're slowing things down because you've got some squealy New Dry in your district scared of a bar opening on Sunday afternoons, well, sorry, but there's clear law on that in The Almighty Liquor Code: it's legal, get out of the way. And if you're slowing things down to benefit another constituent's business, well, remember what your fifth-grade teacher used to say: "I hope you've got enough of that sweet influence for everyone, Miss Smith."
However, there shouldn't be any influence needed. All that's needed is triage. Some bar wants an exemption to open early once on a Sunday in order to show live Tour de France to patrons? Quick decision, and it ought to be yes: where's the harm? Some restaurant asks for a quick registration on a brand for a new beer they'd like to get for a dinner? That's good for a Pennsylvania business and hurts no one: quick decision, and how much work does it take? (Hint: if it takes too much...your system is screwed, because "brand registration" is just an easy source of money for The State anyway.) Those are quick, clear 'em, just hit 'em with your big "HELL YEAH!" stamp and send 'em back; better yet, do it by freakin' e-mail.

Say there are neighborhood complaints about a nuisance bar: top of the pile, get that crap straightened out. Someone wants to transfer a license: have a set time period for a decision, including public hearings if needed, and stick to it.

We have a PLCB CEO now, right? So why aren't performance standards in place? I hear too many stories from licensees about things sent to Harrisburg and not a word back in weeks or months. These people are not drug dealers, they're business people who want to hire Pennsylvanians.

The PLCB should be abolished because it doesn't even work as well as PENNDOT. Let me tell you: I've lived in six other states, and getting licenses, tags, and titles there was -- every one of them -- a chore, a freaking nightmare. At one point, I told my friends that I was probably going to drop dead in a Maryland DMV line, either from a stroke or old age. Getting things done with driver and vehicle registration is one of the best things Pennsylvania government does, and they do it with a beautiful combination of private business and efficient bureaucracy. Why can't the PLCB learn a lesson?

Handle the paperwork, make the decisions, keep records, and get more things online. It's 2008, fergodssake, and you can't even create an online ordering system that works; Amazon's been doing it for over ten years!

If things take so long because there are so many ambiguities in The Almighty Liquor Code, could you tell us? Then maybe we'd push the legislature to fix it. Things can be efficient and still be fair. But when things are this slow, it's not fair to anyone.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The PLCB's Swedish cousin

A reader (thanks, reader!) sent me a link to a post at Reason Magazine's Hit & Run blog about a poster, a real paper poster, done by Systembolaget, the Swedish state booze monopoly. See if you don't think that Systembolaget and the PLCB sound eerily similar:

"Why Can't You Guys Buy Wine at the Supermarket?"

Imagine that you suddenly get this question from a tourist.

Perhaps you know exactly how you should answer.

If not, it might be good to know what the results of a recent survey showed: The Swedish alcohol monopoly saves many lives each year.

If strong beer (Note: beer with more than 3.5% alchohol per volume; really, 3.5%), wine and spirits were sold in grocery stores consumption would increase by 30%, researchers believe. And they stress that this is a conservative estimation—the increase could be more.

They calculate that there will be approximately 1,600 more deaths each year, 14,000 more assaults and around 16 million more sick days.

So the monopoly makes a huge difference for a lot of Swedes.

And because it will only be around as long as people want it to be, we at Systembolaget have to do everything in our power to make sure our customers are satisfied.

This has resulted in our having perhaps the world's largest assortment of strong beer, wine and spirits.

(And an assortment one not finds in Stockholm and Gothenburg, but also in Jokkmokk and Töreboda.)

Wow. Separated at birth, or what?

Let me parse this my way. "We're saving you from booze. If we didn't, you'd drink yourself to death, you idiots; we know this, because of Science. That's why we sell you all the great booze you need, from the cities to the reindeer-herding stations in East Jebip. Tell your friends."

I mean, it doesn't even make sense. If booze really is as scary, uncontrollably bad as these guys say...why sell it at all? Prohibition would be the course of a truly caring state. Save us!

I put the full text of the poster up, but you should go read what Reason said...and check out the paternal-looking Swedish øldska fårtskë on the poster. Oh, man, the PLCB should just lift this!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reason #10: 623 Reasons (wait, make that 596!)

There are approximately 450 liquor stores in Washington, DC, for 581,000 people, in 61 square miles.

There are 627 liquor stores listed in the Chicago phonebook, for 2,869,121 people, in 227 square miles.

There are approximately 2,500 liquor stores in New York state, covering 47,213 square miles of land.

The entire state of Pennsylvania, with a population four times that of Chicago, spread out over 44,820 square miles of land (94% the size of New York), including Philadelphia (the fifth-largest city in the country), has 623* liquor stores. [Update: as of 6/1/2013, there are now only 596 State Stores in Pennsylvania. No one will say why they've closed 27 stores in five years...but it does give me hope.]

Reason #10:

We're Seriously Under-served

This is a problem with multiple sources, and multiple effects. It comes from parsimony -- when you're paying for the stores and the employees and the transport of booze to them, you don't want too many cost centers -- it comes from patronage -- more votes, more state employment bucks in the district, and the boonies get the shaft -- but never doubt that the main reason goes back to the Two-Headed Monster: it's about "temperance."

Specifically, it comes down to "control of access." The New Drys, having officially given up on prohibition, have latched on to the idea that fewer booze stores means less drinking. As usual, I think their cause-and-effect thinking is ass-backwards: less drinking means fewer booze stores, that's just capitalism. But they have a point: if they make it as big a pain in the butt as possible to buy booze, people will probably buy less booze. (In Pennsylvania, anyway: there's a reason you see so many PA plates in the parking lots at Delaware and New Jersey booze stores.)

After all, when it comes right down to it, you don't need that many booze stores. The State's got it all figured out, just how many stores is enough...and, obviously, exactly what you need in those stores. Amazing, really, how the market has figured out a completely different number in New York, 4 times as many, but that's the mind power of the PLCB for you. You only need to buy so much booze, so you only need so many stores.

You know, they're right, to a certain extent. I have way more booze than I need. It's because when I get out of State -- "out of Control," as Carolyn so brilliantly put it -- I see stuff I can't get at home (or don't find because the organization and signage is so pathetic) and I buy it. Now...that's probably booze I didn't need. But you know, I don't need 30 different kinds of cheese either, or five different kinds of bacon, or (God help me) 45 different kinds of mustard. But there's no pack of ying-yangs in Harrisburg making that decision for me, and there's no group of commissars on the Susquehanna deciding that Bucks County only needs ten supermarkets.

Why is there one for booze stores?

The PLCB should be abolished because the number of State Stores in Pennsylvania -- as set by the PLCB -- follows no logic, no rhyme or reason, no market demand or niche. It is simply a decision, an arbitrary decision...as is much of the Pennsylvania Liquor Code. There is no need for the PLCB -- the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board -- to set limits like this. There is no legislation to limit numbers of gun shops, gas stations, fast food outlets, pet stores, tanning parlors, or supermarkets. Why are there limits on the number of booze stores, who sets those limits, and what arcane formulae do they use to determine them? I suspect the answers to those questions are "Just 'cuz," "us," and "that's all you need." I strongly suspect that.

I don't need a booze store on every corner, to be sure. But I also don't need a State bureaucracy telling me just how many they think I do need, especially when it's a number that's obviously out of whack with the rest of the Union.

*It may be a few more or less: the PLCB has been opening and closing stores recently in some mad rationalizing process. Needless to say, there is no apparent pattern to these openings and closings.

What a great opportunity

Pennsylvania could join the movement to rationalize archaic post-Prohibition laws that is apparently sweeping the nation. As this AP story reports, Colorado now allows Sunday sales of booze (and "full-strength" beer, whoopee!), Idaho now allows booze sales on Election Day, Virginia bars are allowed to mix spirits with wine or beer (which should make Steve Beaumont happy), and municipal officials in Wisconsin are now allowed to sell products or services to bars (Huh? Well, there was some poor booger who had to resign because he had a business that -- gasp! -- sold vacuum cleaners to bars and restaurants. Good Lord).

Add to that the many towns across the South that are deciding that being dry is just stupid (mainly because it means that their town won't get an Applebee's, but I'll take what I can get), and you've got a tidal wave of reason sweeping over the booze law establishment in this country.

Wouldn't it be a great time for Pennsylvania to enter the 21st Century? Hell, I'd settle for the 1950s! If even Utah can make their liquor laws more reasonable, aren't you ashamed of Pennsylvania's record? Now is the time. Form a committee in the legislature, get some citizens on there for a change, and get reasonable booze laws in the Commonwealth. We deserve it, because our situation is only becoming worse by comparison.

More on Ontario's "Beer Store"

My colleague (and good friend) Steve Beaumont has -- he claims reluctantly -- taken on the "Beer Store" mess here. I think you'll agree that there are many parallels to our PA-based situation, among them being a ridiculous system, complacent satisfaction, and a simple solution. Take a read; I've got something coming up soon on the similarly ridiculous Swedish government-owned monopoly.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Another Country Heard From

Literally, as in Canada. I just got an e-mail from Cass Enright at BarTowel (a great Ontario beer/bar website that I've used and endorsed in the past). Cass has started a blog dedicated to dumping Ontario's monopolistic -- duopolistic? -- beer retail system -- known by the deadly simple name of The Beer Store -- in the dustbin of history where it belongs: Free Our Beer. Rebellion thrives; welcome aboard.

An Ontarian has started an online petition: "We the people of Ontario demand that The Ontario Government immediately remove the monopoly currently enjoyed by The Beer Store. The people of Ontario demand that the Ontario Government allow beer to be sold and distributed through existing and regular grocery and food store channels."

Does that sound like something we should start? Think Pennsylvanians would sign that petition?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

More Great News For Pennsylvania from the PLCB!!

A Pennsylvania licensee (a restaurant owner) forwarded this communication from the PLCB to me, with the attached note: "Please hurry with your project to eliminate the LCB!!!" (Yes, the emphasis in the following was added.)

Dear Licensee Partner:

As you are probably aware, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has been experiencing continued difficulties with its online Special Liquor Order system, and as a result, your vendor sales representatives have been unable to successfully submit your SLO orders. We apologize for the inconvenience. With the support of the Board, we have decided to suspend SLO submissions via the Internet vendor portal for two months while we switch to a new, upgraded database platform.

Beginning on Monday, June 30, orders that vendors had been submitting on your behalf online will now be sent to the PLCB's Central Office via fax or e-mail. We have additional resources in place to enter all orders we receive and there should be no delay in filling those orders.

Please note that you still have the option of placing an SLO order through any of our 621 Wine & Spirits stores. However, please do not ask your vendor sales rep to place an order for you and place the order yourself through one of our stores, as this will result in a duplicate order. We value the partnership of licensees and vendors in distributing wine and spirits in Pennsylvania, and we are taking significant steps to ensure you still receive prompt service.

I appreciate your cooperation during this improvement in the SLO ordering process. Upgrading our SLO order system is of utmost importance, and on behalf of the Board, I pledge our agency's full commitment as we move forward together.

Thank you for your patience. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any additional questions or concerns.

Joe Conti
Chief Executive Officer

Does anyone else just find it hilarious that the PLCB's special order system is named "SLOW"? Oh, sorry, my mistake: SLO. Did he really say two months? "I appreciate your cooperation..." Like they had a choice! And what does this mean: "With the support of the Board..."? If Conti has to run his decisions past the Board...and its Chairman...exactly what is his position for again? Signing bad news?

If you like good booze, something other than the biggest sellers, this means getting the good stuff will be more of an annoyance for your favorite bar or restaurant. Licensees are sounding off about this, and they're not happy. If it were legal in PA, I could buy booze over the Internet from foreign countries today, been able to for years...but the PLCB is still trying to cobble together something that works.

You know...I worked for the federal government for four years. I worked pretty hard, I enjoyed my work, and I really came to hate hearing the phrase "close enough for government work." I find that as a taxpayer, it pisses me off even more when it's true, and when it's said about a government agency that shouldn't even exist.