Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Yesterday, Washington State voters resoundingly voted YES (looking like over 60% in favor) to privatize the state's liquor wholesale and retail operations. All liquor sales in the state will be private by June 1, 2012. Costco spent about $20 million supporting Prop. 1183 (for privatization), a spend that has been smeared as "buying the election" by anti-1183 groups. This ignores the fact that the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association spent over $12 million trying to defeat it. So...don't accuse the winner of "buying the election" when what really happened is that you were trying to buy it...and got outbid.

So, congratulations to the people of Washington on your wise choice and your victory! And...what's it mean for us? This definitely puts an intangible momentum behind privatization in PA; another state did it, and the sky hasn't fallen in. But tactically? It doesn't mean much. We don't have a Costco willing to step up and fund a campaign for privatization...and even if we did, it's not as simple as that. Because we have to work with the Legislature, and they've been thwarting the public's will on this for years.

Think about it. The polls consistently show the voting public in favor of privatization by a 2:1 margin, yet the Legislature still argues over whether they should even be thinking about it. They twiddle and diddle and talk about the PLCB's "modernization" plans, and the revenue, and the union, and THE CHILDREN!!!!! All red herrings. The People want the State out of the booze business. Very simple. Get the hell to work on it.

Why don't they? Well, the same polls show that only 17% of voters consider this an important issue. I'll grant that, and compared to some others, it's certainly not as important. On the other hand, the heavy lifting has already been done: there are a number of plans out there, some over ten years old, to privatize. Pick one, and do it. It's not controversial if 65% of Pennsylvanians are in favor of it.

Why else? Maybe because of the revenue coming in from our police-enforced monopoly. Prices at the State Store System aren't THAT much out of line with surrounding states -- I've never said that prices were a major issue, although selection and service ARE -- but that's because the PLCB has been willing to take a hit on profits (the governor's PFM report on privatization shows profits steadily declining; more on that soon) to keep their costs high. That's right, I said willing to take a hit on profits to keep their costs high. Because they're a bureaucracy staffed by a union, not a private company, they don't mind not being profitable (according to that PFM report, over half the PLCB's stores are not profitable), as long as they keep their jobs.

Why are the profits declining? So they can stay somewhat competitive while continuing to collect Pennsylvania's outrageously high wine and liquor taxes. But send that private, and the stiff taxes will be exposed. This is the ugly underbelly of the PLCB's State Store System: we pay more than other states on wine and liquor excise taxes: a whole lot more (jump to the link, then scroll down and take a look at the last three tables).

So we need to tell our legislators that when they take this system private, they need to take that burden off our backs and spread it around in a more fair and equitable manner. Or...pick it up in a Marcellus Shale tax of some kind...which it looks like they're already thinking about. Push for that. Because otherwise some genius is going to look at upping the beer tax, and we don't want that!

A good day for Washington State. With luck, a good beginning for Pennsylvania. Keep the ball rolling!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Retail Booze Privatization: why HB11 doesn't cut it

HB 11, a bill proposed by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai back in July, is still the standard bearer for privatization. Privatization currently has the support of Republican Governor Tom Corbett, who has majorities in both houses of the legislature (although the Senate Republicans are stalling, possibly trying to squeeze out a deal on a Marcellus Shale "tax"). To make things more likely, the PLCB has obligingly stumbled badly in the past two years with: 

  • two contracts of questionable ethics and effectiveness – one for the wine kiosks, the other for 'courtesy' training
  • the embarrassing public failure of the wine kiosks (and a clumsy attempt to cover up a strongly negative internal review of the idea)
  • a disastrous install of a $66 million inventory system that led to a gross overbuy of inventory (which then had to be stored in trailers in summer heat) and a shutdown of licensee deliveries pickups (the PLCB doesn't deliver...what was I thinking?!) for a week
  • a still-simmering corruption debacle at the Philadelphia warehouse in which over 20 employees were suspended (and another cover-up)
  • a complete fiasco over beer registration raids on three Philadelphia bars that led to very uncomplimentary hearings on the subject
  • a frustrating inability to promptly close nuisance bars
  • and a baffling failure to turn significant 'profits' with a police-enforced monopoly on sales of wine and spirits
This is the time to strike on privatization, and as you know, I've been all for it. I've called for it, argued for it, howled for it. 

But unless substantial changes are made in HB11, I cannot support it

It is not a question of the perfect being the enemy of the good; this bill has fundamental flaws that are simply not in favor of the citizens of Pennsylvania. I believe that they will result in the replacement of an unresponsive public monopoly with a poor selection of goods…with an unresponsive private oligopoly with a poor selection of goods, and I cannot support that. We have one chance to get this right, because changing the laws again will be even tougher. Let's have a look.

First, and most important to me, HB 11 does nothing about the intolerable police-enforced monopoly. If it passes as is, Pennsylvanians are still forbidden by law to bring home a bottle of wine from New Jersey (or Maryland, or Delaware, or New York...). I've been assured directly by Representative Turzai that the police will no longer enforce this, but that's not good enough. You're a legislator; don't tell me the police won't enforce a despicably un-American law; change the law. When so much of the state's population lives in the tight pocket of the southeast, just across the bridges from huge liquor stores, to do anything else is simply ridiculous. Kill the monopoly, encourage competition. The only reason this is even faintly legal and constitutional is because of the overboard interpretation of rights granted to the states through the 21st Amendment by federal courts; there is no such monopoly on any other goods. The police-enforced monopoly is insulting and intolerable. I cannot and will not support HB11 or any other privatization proposal that does not end it, and neither should you.

Second, the proposed wholesaler fees for exclusivity of brands pretty much guarantee a smaller selection of wine and spirits. Nathan Lutchansky (of the PLCB Users Group blog) has explained this in greater detail than I'd care to replicate; read it there. You'll soon realize that this is a non-starter. Why is this here? Well...maybe this is the reason (and Turzai's general counsel Jim Mann is extremely protective of the bill as written, BTW). Clean bill, please: do-over time.

Taxes are another issue: they're too high. Turzai has replaced the insulting “Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax” with a more rational gallonage tax, but it attempts to replicate the revenues from the onerous Johnstown tax – plus state sales tax, plus the PLCB's “profit” that goes to the state (not really "profit," but a somewhat arbitrary number set each year by the legislature; didja know that?) – by boosting it to crazy high levels...more than twice the taxes in neighboring states. Again, Lutchansky hasthe numbers on this; have a look (see his "Issue #2"). The taxes on wine and liquor simply do not have to be that high. They're unfair at those levels; why should I be paying so much more to fund state programs that benefit everyone just because I drink -- moderately!? Now's the time to make these taxes more equitable, instead of some of the highest in the nation (which is weird, because we have one of the lowest beer taxes...). Replace the revenue with a shale gas tax if you have to.

A huge problem: what about beer?  Why hesitate when we can fix some of the most egregious problems with a couple quick penstrokes (see below) Get rid of the insane case law, now! While we're at it, do away with ALL limitations on sales by licensees: “distributors” can sell anything from a single bottle to a keg, and so can taverns (and delis, and supermarkets with deli licenses), and fix the tax laws so that all retail outlets are on the same footing (right now, bars pay more taxes than distributors...say what?). Then, allow beer distributors to add wine and liquor to their licensed sales; allow the new wine/liquor licensees to sell beer. The artificial separation of sales is all about protecting business status quo; rewrite these laws for the benefit of Pennsylvanians, citizens, and voters for a change! Hell, if Joe "CEO" Conti can say “I'm for the people of Pennsylvania,so can I!

1,250 licenses is simply not enough. If the number were doubled, to 2,500, we would still be under the national average per capita, and this would help address the issue of oligopoly (see below). It will also help address the red herring issue of rural retail access.

I don’t know enough about how the PLCB sells to licensees to complain about it, so I’ll tell you what a friend of mine, a licensee, said:
“My concerns are from a licensee’s point of view. I don't want to be forced to buy from one wholesaler that has a limited selection, makes it difficult to place special orders, and charges retail and sales tax on ‘wholesale purchases.’”
To tell the truth: I don’t even know what HB11 does to address these concerns. I do know that almost every licensee I've talked to who tries to keep a premium wine or spirits inventory finds the PLCB frustrating, and that almost every one is afraid to criticize them. I’d like to hear more about what HB11 has for licensees...I suspect it's not much.

The licensing scheme in HB11 is just that: a scheme. It’s easiest to quote from a licensee who emailed me about this:
“The huge issue I see with the bill is the emphasis on large (over 15,000sf) stores. Was this bill paid for by big retailers like Total Wines? Who the hell is the state to mandate the square footage of a private business? Many of the state stores are much smaller than this. As per the bill, over half of the roughly 1200 stores will need to be over 15,000sf! These large stores often have lots of bottles, but by necessity need to focus on industrial products, not small producers. How is this going to increase selection? We don't need bigger Absolut displays. We need many smaller stores run by entrepreneurs who find and offer cool products. This bill would be the equivalent of mandating that over 50% of all restaurants be more than, say, 5000sf in size. Can you imagine what Philly would be like? A lot more Ruby Tuesdays, a lot less anything good. This aspect of the bill nearly makes it pointless to have privatization!”
I agree. The “protections” against private monopolies could be made much more effective by simply dropping the maximum licenses owned by any one company/person to ten instead of forty. Problem solved. If that loses support from big chains, well, first, too damned bad; and second, it will gain support from the people who are concerned about big chains grabbing all the licenses, and throttling selection. Who are we more concerned about? What’s good for business -- ho ho ho, don't you worry, little voter! -- is good for citizens? Sorry, that’s how we wound up with 75 years of the case law!

Finally, let the results of Granholm flow, and again: favor Pennsylvania’s citizens, not business interests who’d rather see no direct shipping of wine (or spirits or beer) because it might cut into their sales (studies show it doesn’t). Make the taxes realistic, and let direct shipping happen.

Those are the issues I have with HB11. I’d like to see them addressed, or explained, before I solidly support this bill. I've been told that some such changes are under way, but HB11 shows no changes online. Until such time as a majority of these issues are addressed and the police-enforced monopoly is done away with, I do not support this bill, and I urge you to consider these points before you support it. We have paid -- Lord God, we've paid -- for the misguided morality of our Repeal-era legislators and Governor Gifford Pinchot. We've earned a better road to privatization; one that takes our concerns into account first.

Where are we going to get that? I hope that Governor Corbett is doing what I'm starting to think of as his Swan Routine: serene and quiet on the surface, paddling like hell out of sight under the water. From the way he's talked about HB11 after the PFM Report came out (more on that soon) -- "a place to start" -- I don't think he likes it any more than I do. So here's hoping he puts leverage on Representative Turzai (and Jim Mann), or better, puts out his own version of a privatization bill that actually writes privatization for citizens.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Case Law is Stupid, and the Pennsylvania Legislature is Too Scared to Admit It

  1. The Case Law is Stupid. Do I really need to tell you why? Okay, here: have a look. But that's okay, because...
  2. The Case Law is Easy to Get Rid Of. Truly. Just strike the first sentence of Section 441, Paragraph b; and strike the entirety of Paragraph f (which is a complete abomination, and never should have been added). Next, you also drop the parts that say a tavern can only sell 198 oz. of beer or less at a time, and you're Done. It's not that hard to figure it out; all it takes is balls. Because the Pennsylvania Tavern Association is about the only group opposed to changing the case law; they say it would devalue their businesses (because they can sell sixpacks). Their lobbying group has been extremely successful at stopping what polls have shown over 80% of Pennsylvania voting citizens are in favor of: dumping the case law. Which proves that...
  3. The Pennsylvania Legislature is too scared to change the stupid Case Law. Ask any legislator why we have the case law. They won't know. Ask them why they can't change it. They won't answer you. 
Every time a legislator tries to change the case law -- and the first time I remember this happening was back in 1992! -- there's a lot of talk, a lot of excitement, and then two things happen. First, there's a ridiculously unnecessary "compromise," like saying distributors can sell six-packs, but not singles, or -- really useless -- they can sell 12-packs. Why?! There is no need for any restriction! But that doesn't really matter, because the second thing that happens is that the bill never, ever makes it out of committee. It dies. And we're still screwed.

Well, look. They're talking about privatization of the moldy old State Store System. One of the things that is completely wrong with the current proposal, that is a dealbreaker on Mike Turzai's HB11 bill, is that it ignores beer. Why? The division of beer from wine and spirits was never a natural thing to begin with. Look at other states: they have booze stores where you can buy all three of your faves (and cider, too). Beer is a missing piece of the puzzle.

Beat up your legislator on this. Tell them you want normal, rational, adult alcohol laws in the Commonwealth. Get the government out of the booze business, and kill the stupid Case Law by putting booze in stores with wine and liquor...where it belongs. Make it easy for beer distributors to get licenses to sell wine and liquor, hell, convert their licenses to 'all-alcohol' retail licenses. They've earned it.

Then tell your legislator that if they don't kill the case law, they're too cowardly to get your vote next November. This is our year. This is the year it happens. KILL THE STUPID CASE LAW!

New PLCB Chairman in Favor of Privatization

  • Will new PLCB Chairman Skip Brion preside over the agency's demise? 
  • Is Mike Turzai's HB11 the road to the promised land of privatization, or too flawed to survive?
  • Does the PFM report on privatization change anything?
  • Will Governor Corbett step in with his own proposal on privatization?
  • Does anyone other than Hereditary Union President For Life Wendell W. Young IV and State Store System employees ever write anything in favor of the PLCB in Pennsylvania newspapers?
  • Where's Joe "CEO" Conti disappeared to?
 There's so much going on with the PLCB that it's hard to address it in one post...especially when I'm getting back to things after two months of heavy travel and a ton of work. So I'll give it a shot in a couple of posts instead. First: the latest news.

Joseph "Skip" Brion was confirmed as the newest member of the PLCB on Tuesday, Nov. 1, and immediately became Chairman. Brion is a Chester County Republican, a lawyer (what a shock...), and openly in favor of privatization. Brion will chair his first meeting next week, and has said the Board needs to "open itself up and be more in tune with what’s going on at the Capitol." That would certainly be a refreshing change, given how totally tone-deaf the PLCB has been in recent years.

But is anything really going to change because of this? Not likely. Brion may be pro-privatization, but he's still a politician, and that means that when the chips are down, privatization rhetoric aside, he's looking for more of your money -- sorry, more revenue -- to spend on programs of variable worth. So don't expect the high taxes that are the most unsupportable part of HB11 (yeah; more coming on that, and soon) to change.

In fact, Brion has made noises that he's interested in "modernizing" the PLCB. And that makes my heart sink. Because I can tell you exactly what will happen. They'll get some stuff through the Legislature -- how, I'll be damned if I know, because we can't seem to get a simple thing like killing the damned case law through in 20 years! -- and the We-Know-What-You-Really-Need Committee will continue their latest course of buying every single crackpot product that comes on the market (even though no one in the system has the slightest clue on what they are or how to sell them), and they'll make a big stinking deal out of it (spending millions more of your tax dollars on marketing a police-enforced monopoly)...and we'll be satisfied just enough to let privatization fade. And within five years, they'll be back to the same lackadaisical shit job they were doing two years ago before Tom Corbett came along and made privatization an issue and got them scared.

Is that too harsh? Think I don't know what I'm talking about? Well, friend, just cast your memory back to the Chairmanship of Jonathan Newman. Remember that? Back when "Chairman's Selection" actually meant something other than "No one else wanted this stuff, so they cut us a deal on it, and we bought a whole bunch and stuck it in a hot trailer for a while"? Because things were great for a while, and Newman was energized, and enthused, and then what always, inevitably happens at this agency happened: someone noticed a buttload of money, and started screwing with it. And all of a sudden we had Joe Da CEO popped in there -- because he had so much experience in off-premise retail and running a huge wholesaling operation, right? -- fiddling with the knobs and pulling on the strings. And the wheels fell off. If you don't think that exact same thing would happen after "modernization," I've got a bridge to sell you.

Don't fall for it. Stay staunch. Let's get rid of HB11, take Corbett's report, and forge a good privatization bill. Blow open the number of stores, find state jobs for the union clerks, get beer in there, kill the case law, open the borders, lower the ridiculously high taxes, and then watch jobs get created. Watch the restaurants in Philly bloom, watch our already great beer scene blossom, and watch the state catch up to the 21st century. Don't give up now: keep the pressure on your legislators.

More to come. Shortly.

Where's Joe "CEO" Conti disappeared to?