Thursday, March 21, 2013

Historic Day

My fingers are crossed (okay, not literally...I am typing this), but it looks like the House Republicans have the votes to pass HB790, the privatization bill, this morning, or sometime today. I have not let up: sent out emails to southeast PA Republicans urging them to support the bill -- and their party, and their governor, and the majority of Pennsylvanians -- and vote in the affirmative. I would suggest you do the same.

Here's what I said:
Dear Representative XXX,

Today's the day! Privatization of the State Stores is coming down to the line. I sincerely hope that you are planning to vote with the Republican party and with your governor on this issue. They need your vote on HB790, as do the majority of Pennsylvanians who have supported privatizing the State Stores for decades. I strongly support privatization of the State Stores, and think the state's beer distributors are getting a pretty good deal in this bill. As amended, the bill has a lot of what I've wanted for years, and does it in a relatively gradual way.

You're not my direct representative; that's Frank Farry, here in the 142nd District, over in Bucks County. But on this issue, you're representing all of us. Please vote for HB790, and support Republican values in the PA House!

Sincerely, and thanks,

Lew Bryson
Feel free to use this text. Among others, I sent it to Representatives Barrar, Clymer, DiGirolamo, Farry, Miccarelli, and Petri, the Republicans who most needed bucking up. (I copied Corbett ( and Rep. Turzai ( on all those emails too, good idea for encouraging party support.) Um...didn't bother sending any to Democrats. This has become a party issue for them, and their discipline is striking. So it's about shoring up Republican votes.

Send those emails, please share this around, and let's get this over the line and on to the Senate!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Suggested support letters

I don't like form letters. Don't like getting them, hate sending them. But this is an exception, are two suggested emails to send to your Pennsylvania Representative to support HB 790, the current bill for State Store privatization. I know Democrats are lining up solid on this, so...let's ask them to consider abstaining, or just not being there for the vote. That's an easier decision than actually going against the party, and every abstention helps.
Find your representative here, and then send them one of the two letters below: it works better if you modify it a bit, personalize it, but the important thing is to be a name, a voter, in favor of privatization. Remember, it's crucial that you include your full name and address, and they like to see a phone number, too.

If you want to suggest any changes to HB790, suggest that the representative strongly consider lowering the fees on wholesalers. The current bill aims to reap about $500 million from that licensing process, and as an informed consumer and voter, you should know that all of that will be passed on to you as higher prices, and will come right out of your pocket. Tell your representative that there are better ways to find a billion dollars for education than grabbing it from Pennsylvania's wine and spirits drinkers.


Dear Representative XXXX,

As one of the approximately 60% of Pennsylvanians in favor of the privatization of the PLCB State Stores, and as one of your constituents, I ask you to please consider supporting your party and your Governor by voting yes on HB790.

Pennsylvanians have polled in favor of privatization for over 30 years, and thousands of them cross the border to buy our wine and spirits every week instead of going to the State Stores. They'd much rather be buying in Pennsylvania, and bring those millions in tax revenue home, but the State Stores just aren't filling their needs. They go for better selection, or better prices, or better service, but thousands of them do go, and it's costing Pennsylvania millions. Having all that here will save citizens money, and bring in millions of additional tax revenue.

Please consider how many Pennsylvanians favor privatization. I hope you will vote for HB790, and make a public statement of your support. Thank you for your time.




Dear Representative XXXX,

I know you are opposed to privatization of the PLCB State Stores, but as one of the approximately 60% of Pennsylvanians in favor, and as one of your constituents, I ask you to please consider changing your mind, or abstaining from the vote on HB790.

Pennsylvanians have polled in favor of privatization for over 30 years, and thousands of them cross the border to buy our wine and spirits every week instead of going to the State Stores. They'd much rather be buying in Pennsylvania, and bring those millions in tax revenue home, but the State Stores just aren't filling their needs. They go for better selection, or better prices, or better service, but thousands of them do go, and it's costing Pennsylvania millions. Having all that here will save citizens money, and bring in millions of additional tax revenue.

Please consider how many Pennsylvanians favor privatization, and consider abstaining or changing your vote. Thank you for your time.



YES! Amended HB790 would end police-enforced monopoly!

Check out the sidebar list in Brad Bumsted's piece in this morning's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on the newly amended HB 790. It's got a lot of good stuff, but down at the bottom is this little nugget: Criminal penalties eliminated for bringing booze in from other states.

YES! That is the end of the Police-Enforced Monopoly, and that is something we've wanted for years. It is a component of true privatization; the recognition that "competition" is meaningless in an arena of full or partial monopoly. It is an end to the unAmerican restrictions on Pennsylvanians' booze-buying freedom, it is a gust of freeing air. It is a triumph for US, people: this is a topic WE made happen. this. YOU need to call or email -- or both -- YOUR representative this week -- especially if your rep is a Republican -- and tell them you WANT liquor store privatization, you WANT HB 790 to pass, and that this IS a voting booth priority for you. Pass the word, get your friends and family to send in support; this is one time we have to try to match the union. Get on it!

The House Republicans have given us a shot at booze freedom; we have to let them know we want it!

Monday, March 18, 2013

House Liquor Control Committee passes HB790 to the House for consideration

Just watched the House Liquor Control Committee debate numerous amendments to HB790 -- Rep. Turzai's PLCB privatization bill -- and pass one of them, Rep. Mustio's, which did bring down the license fees a bit. It still squeezes one hell of a lot of money out of the wholesale end of the business, and that has to change, or we're going to see price increases in PA just like they did in Washington. But that can change, and must, on the floor of the House.

It's also clear to everyone on both sides of the aisle that beer has to join the process. It should be clear to beer wholesalers and retailers as well; things ARE changing, and it would be a good thing for beer lobbyists to get to Harrisburg and make their best deal possible to advance liquor/wine privatization. It's not a time for greed on either side; this is a time of opportunity that needs to be seized. It's also a time of change, no doubt, and many folks would rather not change. Well...maybe then it's time to bring in new blood.

Interesting times. Now it's up to Rep. Turzai to get this through...while still maintaining real privatization that doesn't get Washingtonized. Cross your fingers, people, and then uncross them and talk to your reps about what you want in a privatization bill. Contact them TODAY, because it may come to a vote quickly. I'm emailing my rep right now.

Wednesday morning: privatization 'debate' on WHYY's Radio Times

I've just been asked to be on WHYY-FM's Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane program to discuss privatization of the PLCB. The show will be this Wednesday at 11 AM. They're working on getting someone on the other side; so far, the candidates have not been "stakeholders," but rather just interested parties like me. So that's cool, because I don't really intend to debate Wendell W. Young IV, or Joe Da ex-CEO Conti. Ever. And here's why:

It's a call-in show, and if you can, please, come up with some good questions -- NOT "I want privatization!" or "The State Stores Suck!" statements, like the lame-o stuff the State Store Supporters call in with -- and do call in. Some sample questions: Why are the private license fees so high? What's the deal with privatizing wholesale? If the past is any indicator, the phone lines will be filled with pro-State Store callers (who have nothing better to do than call these shows and don yellow t-shirts to shout at people at the Capitol), and I'd be appreciative of a friendly voice!

Here's the number: 1-888-477-9499. Listen in -- on the radio, or on the Web -- and give us a call!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Privatization is Not a Piñata

Looks like the Legislature's been here...
I'm looking at HB790, the proposal that Governor Corbett has put forward for privatization of the the State Store System, and it's becoming clear what the Legislature is in this for: the money. It's not about us, it's not about doing the right thing, it's not about doing what we want, it's about the money.

It's about campaign donations from the unions and businesses, it's about the tax revenue, it's about the shiny promise of a billion bucks in "windfall" money from license fees and wholesaler fees and higher fines and continuing fees... And like I always tell people in other states when their legislators want to raise booze taxes, where do you think all that money's going to come from? Duh, guys: out of your pockets. Because the wholesalers and the retailers aren't going to eat that increase (and no reason we should expect them to), it's part of the price of goods. So the higher the license fees...the higher the prices. It's just a tax under another name. Why, much as I'm pissed about Representative Taylor's planned amendment for HB790, at least he recognizes that, and lowered those fees.

The problem is that the Legislature doesn't look at the booze business like we do: producers and wholesalers and retailers all bringing the wines, spirits, and beers we love to shelves near us, hopefully sold by folks who have the same kind of passion for it that we do (or, hey, by guys who want to make picking up the basics quick and easy). They don't look at it like those in the industry do, as a fair business that makes a decent profit and pays good wages. They don't even look at it like MADD and the neo-prohibitionists do, as the devil's handmaidens, selling pure liquid evil.

No, the Legislature looks at the booze business -- brewers, distillers, vintners, importers; wholesalers, retailers; bars, delis, restaurants, taverns, stadium concessions -- as a big piñata, stuffed full of revenue, the money that makes things work in Harrisburg. Yes, the money that builds roads (and drips down to corrupt the fat cats), and pays for the State Police, and higher education, and state parks, and so on and so on, and it's also the money that gets doled out to make friends happy, and pay for patronage work, and all the semi-shady crap that's been going on in's all revenue, and that's really how the Legislature sees the booze business: a piñata, dangling in front of them, bulging with bucks, and the stick's in their hands.

Step right up, Senator! See the beer distributors, gorged with the fruits of their semi-monopoly? WHACK! The bars, making money in cash, helped along by the limited competition the licensing system creates? WHACK! The wholesalers, a layer of markup forced onto the others by three-tier laws -- WHACK! -- the brewers, newly successful craft brewers and the roaring Yuengling -- WHACK! -- Pennsylvania's wineries, ignored by the State Store but making people happy with festival fun -- WHACK! --the new distillers, better teach them how it works before they get too big -- WHACK! -- and the grocers and drugstores, wow, new blood! -- WHACK! WHACK!


And then...the piñata breaks. The revenue tumbles out! Oh boy, grab it, shovel it into your committee bags, scoop it up to take home to your campaign contributors! Don't worry about the broken shell of the piñata. Don't worry; the system has limped along for decades, made to work by dedicated people who worked within the ridiculous cage of complicated laws you made, who did their best to try to bring the citizens what other states' peoples took for granted. It doesn't matter if you don't get this right: you've been ignoring what's wrong with the State Store System for over 40 years, you can ignore the mess you're going to make with privatization, too.

Don't let this happen. Call your representatives, email them, visit them if you can. Go to Facebook, tell Representative Taylor that you want real privatization, not some watered-down "modernization." Here are some talking points, bullet points, really.
  • License fees are too damned high.
  • There are too many different types of license, and the mistake of the "case law" is repeated in multiples with all the different arbitrary limits on how much each license can sell in one transaction.
  • Beer distributors should not be charged a special fee to sell sixpacks, and there shouldn't be a minimum sale of a sixpack: do away with these ridiculous minimum and maximum sales altogether.
  • Privatize fully, NOW. Give them 6 months
Don't break the system to get at all the money inside. Free it up, and collect the extra taxes you'll get when people no longer feel the need, the urge, to avoid the screwed-up mess we have and buy across the border.

And most of all...there is no windfall. If the State Store System really were the "valuable public asset" the unions keep trying to tell us it is, some company would be offering you money to take it over and run it. It's not. It's an annoyance. The people of the state despise it, and can't wait to see it gone. Forcing the new licensees to pay for it is just...whacking the piñata.

The State Stores have had 80 years to get it right. They haven't, they won't. Game over. PRIVATIZE.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

One Good Reason

I had an essay on why Pennsylvania should privatize the State Store System put up on WHYY's "Speak Easy" page today (yes, the irony of the name was not lost on me!). Last week, Marc Stier, a self-described "writer and activist" from Mt. Airy, had an essay posted there titled "6 reasons why we should keep the state wine and liquor stores." Not long after it went up, a few people asked me when i was going to write a rebuttal, and in pretty short order I had been connected with the editor of the site, Eric Walter. He told me what the guidelines were -- pretty simple: 700 words and no trash talking! -- and I wrote it on Sunday afternoon.

The gist? Well, in response to Stier's 6 reasons, I noted that the vaunted "control" that the PLCB exercises through the State Store System is meaningless in a state where all beer sales, and all by-the-drink sales (and even wine sales at the state's many wineries, and spirit sales at the state's distilleries) are done by private entities. As I said, "control" of only one segment of the market is no control at all. Tax revenue, as I've explained over and over, is a red herring; revenue would, at worst, be a wash. His other four points were really one: keep it because of the union jobs. I countered that the UFCW, the main union involved, has successfully organized in private businesses; the bulk of their members are in private businesses, so liquor sales do not have to be a state monopoly to allow union jobs. Pretty simple.

But my One Reason was even simpler: the Legislature should privatize because We The People, the ones who actually elect them in order to have them represent us, consistently poll in strong favor for privatization, and the Legislature has been persistently ignoring those wishes for 30 years or more. It's well past time for them do what we want.

As I say in the essay, "A poll that found people in favor of free lunch every Thursday wouldn't mean the state should mandate that. But Pennsylvanians only want to join the 42 other states where people don't rely on the decisions of bureaucrats to determine what wine and whisky they're allowed to buy." We're not really asking that much. Is it as important as gay rights, as the fracking debate, as spending on transportation infrastructure? No, definitely not. But there IS a bill in motion, so let's do it.

And let's keep it simple: privatize wholesale and retail wine and liquor. Sell beer and wine in the grocery stores (and drugstores, and big box stores, and convenience stores) for a reasonable license fee without all the different limits on single purchases. Let beer distributors upgrade to all-alcohol stores with a fairly simple and inexpensive license upgrade, then add about 500 more all-alcohol licenses. Or something else simple and fair; I'm not wedded to that. We don't have to make a "windfall" on this, and the more I hear about that, the angrier I get. More to come on that, but meanwhile...please read the essay, hit the Like button, and share it where you can. Thanks!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Breaking The Law: the tale of the tape

Yesterday I went Out Of Control. I broke the law by driving to New Jersey and — deliberately and with intent — bought twelve bottles of table wine, mostly Italian and California reds, with a few whites, at Joe Canal's in Lawrenceville. They were not mass market wines; nor were they “fine wines.” I picked the bottles out on my own, based on price, reviews, and “shelf talkers” written by individual clerks whose tastes I’ve learned to trust. The bottles were also mostly offered on special through Canal's Bottle Club: a free membership, like a shopper's card. I had no shopping list going in, just looking for wine for dinners over the next month or so.

In all honesty, I was just buying wine; I had no ulterior motive, no agenda. We were out of table wine, and I was close to Jersey, so I went. But last night, after everyone else went to bed, I got curious about just what the price differences were. So I scanned the bottles with the PLCB's -- admittedly -- fairly nifty Android barcode app, and here’s what I got. The Canal’s price is first…followed by the posted price from the PLCB’s database, where available.

2010 Zenato Valpolicella Superiore — $10.96 — $13.99
2011 Rancho Zabaco Dancing Bull Zinfandel — $7.34 — $9.99 (“sale price”)
2012 Frenzy Sauvignon Blanc — $8.29 — $10.29
2012 Box O 'Birds Sauvignon Blanc — $10.96 — $18.39*
2011 Feudi del Duca Montepulciano d'Abruzzo — $8.66 — NA
2010 Varner Wine Foxglove Chardonnay — $13.49 — NA
2010 Ravenswood Winery Vintners Blend Cabernet Sauvignon — $9.44 — $11.99
2012 Sileni Estate Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc — $9.99 — $13.39
2011 Ravenswood Winery Vintners Blend Old Vine Zinfandel — $8.01 — NA
2010 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz - Cabernet Sauvignon — $9.99 — $9.99 (“sale price”)
2011 Poggio Anima Samael Montepulciano d'Abruzzo — $11.99 — $15.79
2011 Di Majo Norante Sangiovese Terre degli Osci IGT — $7.96 — NA

In summation: PLCB did not list four of the wines. Of the eight wines that were available in the PLCB system AND at Joe Canal’s in Lawrenceville, NJ, all but one was more expensive at the PLCB, at an average of a little over $2.50 per bottle. ONE wine was the same price at both Canal’s and in the PLCB system. And of course, none of the wines were cheaper in PA.

Adding up what I saved (and throwing the PLCB a bone by using the Canal's price for the four wines they didn't carry), and figuring in the PA sales tax (6%) vs. the NJ sales tax (7%)...I saved a total of $27.35. Add in the $2.34 I saved by filling my tank in NJ on the way back, and subtract the cost of fuel for the 40 mile round trip (just a hair over $5), and I saved a nifty $24.61 on the trip. Cha-Ching! I'd have saved money even if I had to pay the $2 toll across the Burlington Bristol bridge! (I used the free crossing on I-95; it's closer.) As it was, this more than covered breakfast for Nora and I; hell, I could have bought a second bottle of Dancing Bull and STILL been ahead.

What's this prove? Nothing, really, because as I've always said, privatization is NOT about the price. But it does show up the bullshit that the PLCB and "Windy" Wendell Young and their ilk spread about the PLCB have "on average" lower prices than New Jersey: out of 8 identical wines, the PLCB didn't beat Canal's price ONCE. So much for that vaunted "buying power." It also shows that the PLCB's claims about their "huge" selection...are crap, when out of a randomly selected dozen wines (they were, but I realize you don't have to trust me), at a store about ten miles from the PA border, the PLCB only lists (which is not, as we all know, the same as "stocks") eight.

Lies, lies, lies. We cannot let them control the terms or the facts of this debate. Just because we know the lies they tell, doesn't mean everyone else does. For instance, PLCB partisans have recently been claiming "$2 billion in revenue" for the stores in website comments and letters to the editor. Well, sure...gross revenue. But after it's gone through their amazing overhead, it comes out to the puny profit we all know about. We need to make them tell the truth. When you see bullshit, call bullshit.

And if you can, screw 'em: buy out of state. There are obviously good reasons to.

Oh, and if the BLCE is reading this? Just kidding. I didn't really buy these wines, I just went and window-shopped. I love the police-enforced monopoly and would never do anything to undermine it. I love you. As far as you know.

*This is actually the price for the 2011 vintage, the 2012 was not available. But the 2011, 2010, and 2009 vintages were all listed, and all at this same I feel fairly honest putting it up there.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Percolation and Progress

Things are popping in Harrisburg. Check out this headline on the Harrisburg Patriot-News website:

Liquor privatization picking up speed in Pennsylvania as bill is introduced 

House Bill 790 was introduced today, and will be moving through committee. According to the bill's primary sponsor, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, the bill will move quickly. From the article above: 
“Because there is a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm … There is widespread agreement in our caucus,” Turzai said. He said the House Liquor Control Committee will take up the bill March 18, and he expects the House will vote on it later this month.
You may recall that last year the privatization bill was shredded in committee by Rep. John Taylor. That's not how he's talking this time around, according to quotes in this article.
“It seems like we’re going to agree on most of it, but the speed of what we’re doing is really a big part of it,” Taylor said.
Taylor wants to slow down the privatization process. Well...if that's what it takes, okay. As long as we avoid the pointless "modernization" the PLCB sycophants in the PA Senate are still gassing about. That tune may change when they find themselves with a passed privatization bill from the House with the Governor standing behind it. Impaired though Corbett may be, he's still the governor, and Senate Republicans will soon find themselves under the spotlight.

Still, one day at a time, do the work that's in front of you. That's getting a privatization bill out of Taylor's Liquor Control Committee in decent time and in decent shape, not gutted like last time. So...PLEASE send emails of support to as many of the members of the Liquor Control Committee as you can; you can find them here. Definitely thank Taylor for his support this time, and thank Representatives Kampf, Killion. Lawrence, Mustio, Reese, and Regan for co-sponsoring HB 790. And if you want, send an email to the 9 Democratic members of the committee, asking them why, if a majority of Democratic voters polled support privatization, not one Democratic legislator supports it.

Keep your fingers crossed, and your powder dry. But get on the email, and on the phones, because I guarantee you that the State Store unions are doing that, calling every week. Make yourself heard for a change!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Just Imagine...

If you had a clean slate, could lay things down the way you think would be best for selling alcohol beverages in would you do it? I heard that question asked recently at a small discussion of the prospects of PLCB privatization, and it gave me pause.

Some things were easy. Would I keep the state-owned stores? Certainly not. Would I ever have the State as the sole wholesaler, with a committee in Harrisburg deciding what would and wouldn't be sold in the state? Don't be ridiculous. Would I keep the police-enforced monopoly, making it illegal for Pennsylvanians to buy a bottle of wine across the river in New Jersey? Not on your life. Would any of us keep the nonsensical case law, or its equally ridiculous corollary, the two sixpack limit at bars? Hell no, done away with, along with "registration"!

But... Would I want anyone who wanted to be able to sell beer, wine, or spirits, by the bottle or by the drink, with no limit other than a small fee and maybe a criminal background check? Should municipalities (of whatever size) be able to control that through zoning? What about BYOB and corkage fees? Would I impose excise taxes? Wholesaler franchise laws, brewery/winery self-distribution, hell, the whole idea of the state-imposed three-tier system: keep it, modify it, or toss it out the window? Honestly, there are things that cause me some head-scratching. I like the idea of no license limitations and a small fee: I've already said that I think licensing limitations lead directly to nuisance bars. But if a majority of people in a town really want to put a limit on the number of licensed bars/restaurants/booze stores, shouldn't they be allowed to? It's their town! Truly, the Devil is in the details.

However...hard as it was for me to answer the question, the pro-PLCB side found it even harder. There are just too many contradictions in the current system to put it forward as the ideal situation with a straight face. Government control of retail? If it's good, why not government control of beer sales? Why not government control of by-the-drink sales? And believe me, no one wants the government controlling that. Can you imagine PLCB clerks as bartenders? The mind boggles. They certainly couldn't call it "the hospitality industry" anymore...

If you grant control, and manage to come up with a cogent argument for it, how on earth do you then task the very same agency with regulation, taxation, and regulation of booze sales with an eye towards -- literally -- controlling how much people drink? Does anyone really think an agency that's supposed to be keeping us from drinking too much, that was created "for the protection of the public welfare, health, peace and morals of the people of the Commonwealth and to prohibit forever the open saloon," (as the Almighty Liquor Code puts it), is the agency that should also be advertising the idea of buying mom a bottle of vodka for Mother's Day?

I've said I wouldn't want to debate President For Life Wendell W. Young IV about privatization --  the man is just too glib a liar -- but it would almost be worth it to sandbag him with that question: if you could wipe away the Pennsylvania Liquor Code and build a new way of doing alcohol beverage retail from zero...would you create the PLCB and the State Store System, the beer distributors and tavern licensing, and the case law? Love to see a pro-PLCB answer to that one that wouldn't have the audience laughing their asses off.