Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Not so Radical

Think my call for a simple abolishment of the case law is radical? I said it was myself. But it's almost exactly what the Scranton Times-Tribune called for today in an editorial comment on Monday's Wegmans decision allowing supermarkets with delineated 'cafes' to purchase liquor licenses:
Even though the court decision is a victory for consumers, it does not create the level of competition that those consumers should enjoy. Lawmakers should build on the court decision to create true consumer choice for beer. State law does not require meat to be purchased only from local butchers or cakes to be bought only from independent bakers. There is no reason that adults should not have the same options for beer that they have for other consumer goods.The law should be changed to allow open, rather than restricted, retail sales in supermarkets, and to enable distributors to sell beer in quantities other than cases.

Eat 'em up, Scranton! That's the kind of duh!-level common sense the debate on the case law needs, and the kind of support for the consumer that's been wholly absent. Beat the drums, people, write those letters.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tennis match continues: Wegmans beer sales now okay, says PA Commonwealth Court

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has upheld the PLCB's original actions in granting licenses to two Wegmans supermarkets (in Bethlehem and Williamsport). [Follow-up: SHOCKER! The Malt Beverage Distributors Association has said it will appeal this ruling to the State Supreme Court! Wow! Didn't see that coming... Sheesh.] This AP story (the link is to the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader) tells the story in a somewhat cock-eyed manner; read that second sentence:

Beer sales at restaurants run by the Wegmans supermarket chain got court approval Monday in a pair of cases that expand where consumers can buy take-out alcohol.

The unanimous decision in Commonwealth Court allows patrons to circumvent beer distributors where customers may only purchase beer by the case. The court rejected arguments by the state beer retailers' association that Wegmans created a "legal fiction" by routing suds sales through cafes that are attached by an interior passageway to their grocery stores.

The ruling upheld license approvals by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board for Wegmans stores in Bethlehem and Williamsport. The Pennsylvania Malt Beverage Distributors Association sued last March to appeal the agency's decisions.
The bolded sentence makes me wonder who on the staff of the Times Leader decided this story should be cast as so unfair against beer distributors. It would have been more accurate to simply state "The unanimous decision in Commonwealth Court allows Wegmans to use the restaurant licenses they legally acquired to sell beer by the drink and up to two six-packs to go, just like other restaurant licenses."

But here's my takeaway from the article, in that this is a non-event:
"There hasn't been a change in the law, there hasn't been a change in restaurant licenses, there hasn't been a change in the LCB policy," said liquor board spokesman Nick Hays. "What has happened is some of these stores have made business decisions to incorporate full-service restaurants in their businesses."

Like I keep saying: this is not new law. This has been legal for years, it's just that no one's done it. Now that supermarkets like Wegmans are doing nice in-store restaurants, though, why not? It's just a restaurant. Is the MBDA against restaurants and bars?

The real problem here is the case law, the concomitant "2 sixers at a bar" law, and the artificial and arbitrary nature of booze laws in general in the Commonwealth. Supermarkets can't sell beer, beer stores can't sell groceries, delis can sell both...why?

There is no answer, because the reasons are ridiculous. Just one more Reason...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More letters

I asked you to send in other anti-PLCB/State Store System letters to newspaper editors you might see, and long-time reader Harry Spade came through with a good one. This ran in the Lancaster New Era, my old hometown paper, last week, February 10:

Editor, New Era:

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a few problems, so they say, that could easily be resolved if they would look at ideas from the citizens. Here are some suggestions:

Sell off the current liquor stores at public auction. This would raise some quick cash and get rid of long-term expenses (rents, electric bills, administrative costs, etc). Of course, have annual fees for the new owners and keep collecting taxes from the liquor sales. Make the sale of the stores attractive to the new prospective buyers by putting a hold on any more store openings for five years.

Take all of the current liquor-store employees and offer them other jobs in the state. This would save their jobs and fill vacant positions that are being unfilled by the hiring freeze. This would help them keep their jobs with the commonwealth and protect their retirements.

From what I have seen in the attitudes of the current liquor-store employees, they are not really happy working in them anyway.

Steve Soldner


As Harry said, I'm not sure I go along with the five-year hold, but at least Steve's thinking. I think the opportunity would be juicy enough without the five-year hold, myself.

Folks, it is E-Z to send a letter to the editor these days. Look at your paper's website, there will be an e-mail link. Don't write anything too long, and be polite. Tell them:
  • the state needs money
  • selling the State Stores will make a lot of money, once
  • opening up booze sales will mean more tax revenue and more jobs
  • current employees can be folded into the state payroll to cover headcount during this hiring freeze (good idea, Steve)
  • the State shouldn't be selling booze in the first place
And that should do it. Write it, send it, get published, and send me a link!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Reason #15: The Case Law is Stupid

About fourteen years ago, I worked beer retail for a while at the distributor* that Matt Guyer would later buy and turn into the acclaimed Beer Yard. It was called the Beverage Store at the time, though some people still called it Kiley's. Not important.

Anyway, we were not far from Villanova, and about once a week we'd get some kid in who'd walk around, look confused, and finally walk up and ask where we had the sixpacks for sale. I was usually relieved, because this meant we wouldn't have to go through the bullshit of "What? I left my ID in the car!" (as if anyone ever really does that) or "Look at me, man, I'm 21!" Instead, I'd just say, "Sorry, we can't sell sixpacks; this is Pennsylvania. You'll have to go to a bar." And the look on their faces was always so worth it: jaw-dropped, flat-out, 'Say frickin' what?!'

Sad part is, they were right. It's ridiculous, but in Pennsylvania, when you go to a beer store*, you can't buy one bottle, you can't buy a four-pack, you can't buy a six-pack, an eight-pack, a nine-pack, a 12-pack, or even an 18-pack. Cuz that's illegal. You have to buy a case. Unless, of course, you really want to buy less, in which case you can go to a tavern (or a place with a so-called "deli license"), where you can buy a six-pack, or a 12-pack, or two six-packs...but no more than that. Cuz that's illegal.

Say frickin' what?!

Reason #15:

The Case Law Has No Reason To Live

Here it is, in all its dopey glory (The Almighty Liquor Code, Article IV, SECTION 441):

DISTRIBUTORS’ AND IMPORTING DISTRIBUTORS’ RESTRICTIONS ON SALES, STORAGE, ETC., paragraph b: No distributor*or importing distributor* shall sell any malt or brewed beverages in quantities of less than a case or original containers containing one hundred twenty-eight ounces or more which may be sold separately: Provided, That no malt or brewed beverages sold or delivered shall be consumed upon the premises of the distributor or importing distributor, or in any place provided for such purpose by such distributor or importing distributor. Notwithstanding any other provision of this section or act, malt or brewed beverages which are part of a tasting conducted pursuant to the board's regulations may be consumed on licensed premises.
The scary thing is, the bare bones of the Case Law aren't all of it. For instance, the two six-pack limit in the bar? What most of the six-pack shops in places like State College won't tell you when they're telling you that you are only allowed to buy two that you can then step outside the door of the licensed premises, step back in, and legally buy two more (assuming you'd want to pay bar mark-up on a case).

Want a really weird one? Check this out. Used to be, if a case at a distributor's* got damaged, like if the pallet jack caught the corner or someone dropped a case, the remnants of the case could be combined with another damaged case and sold, a "mixed" case. Big deal, right? Well, check this out from Paragraph f from the same section of The Almighty Liquor Code:

(1) To salvage one or more salable cases from one or more damaged cases, cartons or packages of malt or brewed beverages, a distributor or importing distributor may repackage consequent to inadvertent damage and sell a case, carton or package of identical units of malt or brewed beverages.
(2) Repackaging is permissible only to the extent made necessary by inadvertent damage. Repackaging not consequent to damage is prohibited.
(3) The term _identical units_ as used in this subsection means undamaged bottles or cans of identical brand, package and volume. (added May 31, 1996, P.L.312, No.49)

So...some distributors were "damaging" cases and combining them, because customers had gotten so interested in trying different beers (and not wanting to buy a whole damned case at a time of ONE). Big flippin' deal, right? Wrong. This practice scared and pissed somebody so much that just 13 years ago, they managed to get The Almighty Liquor Code changed to specifically outlaw it. (The legislator who put it in there retired; last I heard he was lobbying for the health care industry.) That's crazy, that's not just stupid, that's plain mean-spirited.

Why do we even have this uniquely stupid law? It originated in Repeal. It was part of a model law written up by the beer wholesalers and presented to the Legislature after Repeal; they figured that they'd try to get what they wanted in Repeal by saving the legislators the work of writing law. They put the case law in there to increase sales and decrease work: nobody's got to break up a case, and you have to buy at least a case at a time (and you had to pay cash on both sides of the transaction, too). The State went for it (with all the other dumb shit they put in The Almighty Liquor Code, are you surprised?).

But why is it still there, over 70 years later, when Pennsylvanians almost uniformly hate it? I've seen results of a poll asking Pennsylvania voters about a variety of issues: over 80% of them said they'd like to see the case law go away. MADD doesn't want it, Bible-thumpers don't care about it. So why has the Legislature fiddled and diddled with a variety of ways to change the case law but never yet done a damned thing?

What's that? Money must be involved? Aren't you the smart one! Bar owners don't want the case law to change because they've got a monopoly on six-pack sales. Some people have made the investment in a bar license just to sell six-packs. Distributors don't want to rock the boat: selling six-packs would mean completely re-designing their stores, putting in coolers and maybe carpet (most distributors' stores have all the charm of a garage). And everyone in the business is sure that breaking the case law will mean beer sales in supermarkets.

As a beer buyer, you're probably asking what the down side for you is on all this. The answer would be, not much, although it is an unknown. There is a chance that six-pack sales would change the draft beer scene, that six-pack sales would change the dynamics that keep small distributors in business, that they might even make it harder for craft brewers to stay in the market (though I think that last one is pretty iffy). But balance that against being able to buy beer like normal people: as little or as much as you want.

This is not actually a Reason to Abolish the PLCB. This is not an issue central to its existence. But take a look up there at the description of the blog: One person's reasons why the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board should be abolished, and The Almighty Liquor Code completely overhauled and rewritten... This is certainly one bit of The Almighty Liquor Code that needs to be re-written. Therefore...

The Almighty Liquor Code should be re-written to do away with all restrictions on beer sales by amount. No more case law, no more two six-pack limit, no more no re-packing cases. And when we get rid of it, let's have no deals, no complicated balancing acts, no bullshit. Just excise that part of the code. And when it comes to sales and percentages, let the individual businesses compete on their merits, and how well they serve the customers' needs.

Simple. Radical. Do it now, we can get around to the abolishing later.

*In Pennsylvania, we call the beer stores "distributors." You know, the place that sells cases of beer, because that's the only quantity they're allowed to? I don't know why they're called that.

Friday, February 13, 2009

One the Inquirer did print

Although the Inky didn't print my 'privatize the PLCB' letter you see below, they did print this one today, which brings up a beautiful point I've made here before. Maybe mine was too long...

Selling a monopoly
With the state trying to balance its budget in these difficult economic times, I would like to know why my tax dollars are being spent on radio advertising campaigns for the wine and spirit liquor stores in Pennsylvania. A monopoly in the marketplace, such as the Liquor Control Board, has no need to solicit for customers. By the way, this state-controlled business should be privatized.

Brenda Webster

Go, Brenda! If you see letters like this in your local paper, send me a link. I'll get 'em up here.

(BTW, now that the blog's living and breathing again...I've got my regular reader from the State government in Harrisburg again. Good to have you back, hope you're taking notes! The word for today is privatize.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Open Letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer

I sent the following to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which did not, unfortunately, see fit to select it for print. Luckily, me and Blogger, we got a printing press of our I'm putting it up here.

Gambling? Gambling's nothing!

Your statement (lead editorial on Feb. 9) on Governor Rendell's video poker idea hits some great points. We would have to check all licensees and spend millions on an enforcement bureaucracy (including benefits and pensions). More people already break the law rather than obey it. Current laws were set up with little public input and continue to be enforced against the public's will: the big casinos are being jammed down Philadelphia's throat. And "funding [state programs] on the backs of gambling's marks isn't the way to go."

Right on all counts, a bad idea. Yet that's exactly what we have with the Liquor Control Board. A separate enforcement (and sales!) bureaucracy, despite which people break the booze laws regularly (By the way: video poker enforcement is currently being carried out by the State Police's Liquor Control Enforcement arm...). Insanely tight inspections just to sell sixpacks, with arbitrary enforcement. Laws set up without public input: do a majority of citizens want the beer-by-the-case law or the State Stores anymore? And a huge 18% tax – "on the backs" of people who have a glass of wine with dinner – ostensibly to pay for the 1936 Johnstown Flood?

Privatize booze sales in Pennsylvania. It's fair, it's smart, and studies indicate we'd realize a windfall of over $500 million. You can plug a lot of budget holes with that.

Most sincerely,

Lew Bryson

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

PLCB to Phoenixville: Drop Dead

Great discussion ongoing in The Phoenixville News about the PLCB pulling the State Store out of town.

It starts here with local business (the Earth Mart) owner Lisa Longo asking why the PLCB closed the downtown Phoenixville State Store "without any notice or public hearings, no due diligence (to my knowledge, and I asked the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board spokesperson), no economic impact study, but the PCLB spokesperson told me it was "just business" and, because there was "no free parking" in Phoenixville. Really? Since when?"

Seriously, since when should a state agency be slamming shut a door for reasons that are "just business"? Why the hell is the State in this business to begin with?

The city follows up today with this piece from Henry Wagner, the borough council president. "I, together with the rest of Council, the Mayor and the CDC agree that the loss of the State Store would not be a positive step... The PLCB made this decision without speaking to any borough representatives."

Look, if this had been a privately-owned liquor store, okay, they can close up shop, no sweat. Maybe the town would have tried to keep them open; P-ville is trying to re-vitalize their downtown. But for a government agency to do it, after saying they would consult with the borough before moving? Your tax dollars at work: congratulations, Phoenixville, you've been screwed.

The State Store System continues in operation because it is a frickin' jobs program, and a great place for Governor Rendell to reward out-of-work legislators. If it's a jobs program...apparently they can't even do that right. Sell the whole thing, get the state out of this business, and realize the windfall.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Reason #14: It Makes No Difference

The Liquor Control Board is a drag. It's a pain to have such a small number of booze outlets, dealing with the state's cumbersome, unfriendly wholesale operation is a hassle for taverns and restaurants, and do I have to remind you: the case law*? If you want a real selection of booze, a big selection, a selection that wasn't made by people in Harrisburg guessing what's best for you (which is apparently a ton of vodkas and Yellowtail), you have to leave the state ("go out of Control," as Carolyn so aptly put it).

You can't get good wine advice, the beer stores are dingy because of the case law (sorry, guys, but they are), and all we can buy at a supermarket/drug store/gas station is Diet Freakin' Pepsi. What's worst, maybe, is the thought that just across the border things are different, things are better: the citizens are treated like adults.

But all this is understandable and bearable, we're told, because the State is keeping us safe, keeping alcoholism under check, by an agency's The Almighty Liquor Code put it?
for the protection of the public welfare, health, peace and morals of the people of the Commonwealth and to prohibit forever the open saloon, and all of the provisions of this act shall be liberally construed for the accomplishment of this purpose.
Yeah, that's it. See, they're protecting our welfare, health, peace, and morals. And prohibiting forever the open saloon, whatever the hell that means. So, it's, like, worth it, right?

Whether or not the 'deal' is worth it or not is a question we'll have to postpone, because they're not protecting our welfare, health, peace, and morals, or at least not significantly better than non-Control states do. How do I know this? The PLCB told me.

Reason #14:

The "Control" Part Isn't Working Worth a Damn.

First point: one of the things the PLCB is responsible for is the control of underage drinking. In fact, one of the official responsibilities the PLCB has is to create a report "on High Risk and Underage Drinking" and deliver it to the state General Assembly every two years. This is a result of a change to The Almighty Liquor Code passed in 2006; here's what was added:
Section 217. Biennial Reports.--(a) The board's Bureau of Alcohol Education shall prepare a report on underage alcohol drinking and high risk college alcohol drinking in this Commonwealth.
(b) A report shall be prepared biennially and shall address the following:
(1) Current levels and trends of underage alcohol drinking and high risk college alcohol drinking in this Commonwealth.
(2) Current programs conducted by State agencies to prevent underage alcohol drinking and high risk college alcohol drinking.
(3) Current science that better defines and suggests proven prevention strategies for underage alcohol drinking and high risk college alcohol drinking.
(c) The first report to the General Assembly shall be presented prior to February 1, 2007. Additional reports shall be presented every two years thereafter. [details of who gets the report follow]
The PLCB managed to churn out the first report only 6 weeks late (March 14, 2007), and despite having two years to get their act together, this year's report is already nine days late. Still, they're happy to do it, because according to Board member Tom Goldsmith when the first report finally came out: “The PLCB is proud to lead the fight against underage and high-risk drinking in our commonwealth.”

You would think that with all the control measures the PLCB has put in place to hamper efforts of underage drinkers to get booze -- which also inevitably hamper the efforts of legal-aged drinkers to purchase and enjoy what is, for them, something as legal and proper as groceries -- that the "fight" would be going well, especially compared to those lax bastards across the state borders, where they don't have our morally enlightened measures in place.

You would be wrong. According to figures found in that same PLCB report (which is, by the way, absolutely stuffed with New Dry bumf), college drinking in Pennsylvania takes place at essentially the same rate as it does across the nation. A variety of questions -- have you consumed alcohol in the past year/30 days, did you binge drink, are you aware of drinking around you, do you drink and do the wild thing -- all reveal that students in Pennsylvania are doing...whatever alcohol-related thing you'd care to mention about as often as students anywhere.

Indeed, the report's summary admits it (right on page 10): "When compared to college students across the nation, Pennsylvania students are very similar. Eighty four percent (84%) of students in the nation and Pennsylvania stated they have used alcohol at least once in their life. When it comes to use of alcohol in the past thirty days, Pennsylvania students registered at seventy percent (70%) versus seventy two percent (72%) for the nation." When you consider that there has historically been a higher occurrence of student drinking in the northeastern U.S. -- again, it's right there on page 10 -- the similarity blends to almost unity.

There is one thing. Pennsylvania's younger students, in middle schools, drink at a lower rate than nationally -- bravo, L.C. Bee. But they catch up by junior and senior year.

So what is it that's so great about control?

Second point: if underage drinking isn't the first boozing indicator people look at -- and I happen to think it would be a lot less of a problem if we look the legal drinking age to 18, but that's another story -- they point to drunk driving. It's a serious and real issue, and it affects everyone quite personally, especially if you're on the road on a Saturday night.

Pennsylvania combats drunk driving with a variety of programs. RAMP (Responsible Alcohol Management Program) is the main one. It was created by the PLCB to educate licensees and their employees about alcohol management. The PLCB describes it like this: "RAMP training teaches employees how to serve alcohol responsibly, how to detect fake identification, to not sell alcohol to minors and visibly intoxicated patrons, and to reduce alcohol-related problems at licensee establishments." Good idea, similar to the TIPS program in use across the country, though cynics among us often say that these programs are more about limiting liability than they are about limiting risky drinking. And, of course, there's control. Which is...what, again? The limited number of stores? The half-assed selection? The case law? Are they trying to annoy us into drinking less?

Enough. I'm only making fun of the idea of control because it's clearly not working in the case of drunk driving, either. The latest drunk driving stats I could get are from 2006 and only cover "alcohol-related" traffic fatalities as a percentage of all traffic fatalities -- and I'll be happy to update this if someone can get me better ones -- but the figures are illuminating. Pennsylvania's percentages of "alcohol-related" traffic fatalities sit right at the national average, 37%. The states that border the Commonwealth? New York: 33%. New Jersey: 37%. Delaware: 34%. Maryland: 36%. West Virginia: 38%. Ohio: 37%. Lest you think that every state's about the same, Kentucky's rate is 28%, Wisconsin's is 49%. (I'd like to have stats that show the number of "alcohol-related" accidents and DUI arrests as a percentage of state population; if you find those, please let me know.)

The PLCB should be abolished because it is ineffective at a mission so important to its existence that it is in its name. All this hassle, the ridiculous usurpation of liquor and wine retail by the State, all the moralistic preaching, all the programs, all the enforcement, all the eight foot tall bees (with antenna), all turn out to be no better, no more effective than what they do in other states. Don't tell me about policy projections, show me the numbers. And the numbers say that control is bullshit.

Not to mention...there are plenty of open saloons in Pennsylvania. I'm very disappointed.

*No, of course, I haven't forgotten the case law. I think of it daily. It's definitely a Reason, and I'll get to it soon.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

It's Official: I'm a Lazy Bastard

The poll's closed, and by better than two to one, you've said that the blog was down for three months mainly because "Lew's a lazy bastard."

Okay, then. We'll move on from here! I've already got another post up today, so I'm doing better, right?

Virginia's Got It, Too

I saw on Dave Turley's Musings Over a Pint that an effort to privatize Virginia's State Store System died in committee, dammit. State Senator Mark Obenshain made the effort, and says he will continue to do so (if you're a Virginian, and interested (Carl!), the senator has a Facebook group to support his efforts: find it under "Virginians for ABC Store Privatization."

The Northern Virginia Daily has a good piece on this, reasonably balanced, in which it is pointed out, quite clearly, that this economic crisis could be a great time to push this: the state could realize a lot of money (as I pointed out about the PA SSS here).

But Obershain's main point is not fiscal, it's philosophical, and it's the biggest Reason that there is: the State should not be in the retail liquor business. As he says on that Facebook group, "There are certain core competencies of state government, but selling distilled spirits is not one of them."

Best of luck, Senator. Now, when is a Pennsylvania legislator going to get the guts to step up and propose what most of the folks in the State know is the right thing to do?