Saturday, June 29, 2013

What Rough Beast...

The Second Coming
W.B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Harrisburg to be born?
A twisted, disfigured privatization bill is limping toward the finish line in the Senate as I write this, at 1:30 AM on Saturday morning. I'm listening to the Democrats' last-ditch efforts as amendments are offered. Senator Teplitz is admitting that the PLCB is corrupt and stupid, but thinks it should be retained. I believe he undercuts his argument...but it's futile. He's speaking in favor of "The Ferlo Amendment." That's the Democrats' "modernization" scheme, which really stands for more of the same...only now open on Sundays (although Ferlo's amendment DID have better "package reform;" the Republicans have ludicrously made The Case Law even MORE complicated). 
This bill is ridiculous in its pointless compromise. If it passes, we will still be a laughingstock among civilized states. Unnecessarily arbitrary compromises stud it like chunks of coal in a pudding. This has become a coddling of Big Beer, and a crusade against Corbett. It will be decided on party lines, for reasons having very little to do with the merits of the bill.
And you know what? I'll take this Second Coming of private alcohol sales in the Commonwealth. Because once the wall is broken, it cannot be repaired. It can only be further torn down as people realize how stupid it was to begin with. The predictions of disaster will come to naught.
Ferlo's amendment was defeated, narrowly, with one Republican -- Greenleaf, of Montgomery County -- voting for it. The bill has been amended, with a vote of 27 Republicans in favor of the Pileggi amendment, an augury of success in the Appropriations Committee, after which it will return to the Senate for final passage and reconciliation with the House...which could be tricky. But another step goes forward; the slouching continues. The senators are calling it a night, and so am I.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Another hurdle overcome: privatization passes Law and Justice Committee

SB100 has passed out of the Senate Law and Justice Committee by a vote of 6-5. The squeaker came when Republican Senator Don White (41st District, Indiana County) voted NO. Full vote is here. Privatization is now available for consideration by the full Senate. The bill now moves on to the Appropriations Committee (my mistake), then to a Senate vote by Wednesday. It won't be easy.

But that officially means that option 1 on the poll up there to the no longer a concern. Call your Senators today!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Details...Why So Late, Senator?

In the wake of yesterday's endorsement of SB100 (such as it is; I'm just a blogger, fergodssake), I have to bring up this: why did it take so stinking long?

Here we are, shoved up against the legislative deadline, with only 10 days to get this bill out of committee (which is apparently achieved but not voted), passed in the Senate (and we've already been told that the votes are not in place yet), reconciled in the House (where Rep. Turzai is not happy with the loss of wholesale privatization, and who would be?), and then signed by the Governor (which should be a slamdunk; he's not going to veto a privatization bill, and I assume he's going to have input before it gets to his desk). Now, the Gov has already said he was prepared to stick around for as long as it takes to get a budget passed, so the session may not actually be OVER on July 1...but let's stick to the official calendar for now. Why did it take so long?

I can tell you in one word: McIlhinney. Senator Charles T. "Chuck" McIlhinney is the majority chair of the Senate Law & Justice Committee, the committee that oversees the PLCB in the Senate, and he got House Bill 790, the liquor privatization bill, way back in mid-March...when he promptly -- promptly -- announced that he was going to hold hearings on the bill. Hearings that the House Republicans were excoriated for not the Democrats and the union, who knew that hearings would delay, delay, delay, and do nothing to change ANY Democratic votes -- their party discipline on this has been impressive, stoked by the hopes of a Corbett defeat and continuing union-donated campaign cash -- and likely not change any Republican votes. 

Why not? Let's face it: this issue has been around for 40 years. If you're a Pennsylvania legislator and you don't know about this issue and have an opinion, you're incompetent and should be voted out. The hearings would be an opportunity for two things: delay and bloviating. McIlhinney supplied the delay -- spreading the hearings out over six weeks -- and the Democrats, led by Senator Jim Ferlo and the UFCW's jeering yellow-shirted shlock troops, supplied the bloviation, which McIlhinney was all too ready to allow.

Meanwhile, the hearings were blatantly stacked. The first hearing was all "beware the harms of alcohol" people, who could be guaranteed to be against any kind of liberalization of alcohol policy, regardless of facts. Well, okay, we thought, that's out of the way

But then the second hearing was almost as bad! Representatives from Wegmans and Redner's supermarkets appeared to ask for beer in the markets (the guy from Redner's made an excellent point that the cafe requirement was slanted against smaller stores), the main desire of the citizens who only want normalcy (don't hold your breath: you ain't getting it). But after Senator Williams asked them about their "diversity plan" (sure, be good to have, but what's it got to do with the issue? And how many beer distributors have one?) and McIlhinney had brushed them aside (essentially saying, yeah, that's what you'd like, but that's not how it's going to be), it was the Pro-PLCB Express again, with the MBDA saying 'You will utterly destroy 1,400 small family businesses if you don't leave things exactly the way they are!' (paraphrasing) and the president of Philly-based Charles Jacquin Liquor Co., who said "We love the PLCB!" (actual quote, and of course he does: they sell most of their bargain-style booze here and never have to spend a dime on sales because the PLCB carries all of it at cheap prices. A marriage made in Purgatory (though mind you, I don't mind a dose of Rock 'n' Rye occasionally in the winter...)), the tavern owners (who essentially said the same thing the MBDA did: don't rock the boat, we're making good money here), and a Pennsylvania winery that's managed to get in the State Stores guessed it, doesn't want to rock the boat.

The third hearing lost control. The beer wholesalers got a chance to plea for no boat-rocking. There was a moment of opposition, beautifully presented by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers and DISCUS, and they held their ground well against Senator Ferlo and his minions. But then we got three hours of straight "The PLCB is the most amazing thing since fire!" from direct stakeholders like the unions, one of the three companies that gets paid to haul the PLCB's wholesale business (not the one that's owned by Attorney General Kane's husband, oddly enough...), and the PLCB themselves (classic moment: McIlhinney says to them, the guy from DISCUS says you can't handle wholesale for 14,000 businesses (when everyone knows they can barely handle wholesale for their own 596 stores). Can you? Oh, you bet, says the PLCB guy, with a straight face. Wonder what the tavern owners had to say about that?).

Then the Lieutenant-Governor finally gets to speak, with almost no time left, and Ferlo heaps derision on him, and the State Police commissioner, while the yellow-shirted union reps cheered, booed, and cackled. It was, as veteran political reporter Brad Bumsted put it, "unlike any committee hearing I've seen in more than three decades." And in case you think I'm exaggerating about Ferlo and the union, he also said: "Cawley and his panel, including Col. Frank Noonan, commissioner of the state police, and Secretary of Health Michael Wolf, were verbally thrashed by Sen. Jim Ferlo" and "[the state store clerks] cheered wildly for Ferlo and, not surprisingly, hooted and jeered at Cawley."He then described McIlhinney's belated call for order as "laughable."

It was a terribly cynical exercise, but do you know what the worst thing was? Not one single consumer was heard from. Not one of the people who actually have to deal with this system. The Legislature didn't want to hear from the civilians, the citizens...the voters. Why start now? They haven't wanted to hear what we've had to say about the State Stores for over 40 years!

If McIlhinney was going to schedule such a circus, a pro-PLCB parade, he could have done it in a week. All these people gave what are stock speeches; the slavishly pro-labor academic Dr. Ron Zullo delivered essentially the same speech he did at last year's hearing. There's no excuse for taking six weeks...unless you wanted to delay a vote, to jam this up against the deadline so hard that it didn't really matter what you came out with, it would be too late to get it through.

Don't believe me? Then tell me why, if the last non-meaningful hearing was over two weeks ago, McIlhinney only announced his "plan" on Tuesday...and still has not actually released a bill for examination? More delay. We read today that his committee won't be considering the bill till next week. The last week of the session.

Because of McIlhinney's delaying tactics, we now have this lump of a bill. I'll support it, and urge its passage, because it's all we have time for. We won't be able to get a good law, because the Senator successfully wasted the time he had. 

Would HB790 have passed the Senate? Probably not. And McIlhinney's deliberate delays ensured that we would get this mishmosh instead. But if we don't pass this, it's going to be ten years till we get another chance to get this ludicrous relic off our backs. Thanks, Senator. I sure do hope the Republican Party remembers what you did to them when election time comes around.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Not a Mistake, Not perfect...Good Enough

Last post I asked if we would be calling Senator McIlhinney's privatization proposal "McIlhinney's Mistake." Here's what I thought we'd see in it:
Best guess at that, from things he's been saying: bars and restaurants should be allowed to sell full bottles of wine and spirits to go, the State Stores stay open, the case law stays and the beer in grocery stores situation remains in its ridiculous "cafe needed" state, and the PLCB remains as the state's sole wholesaler...and that's going to be "privatization," McIlhinney's Mistake-style.

Here's how that went when we got a revamped version of his SB100, yesterday:
  • Beer distributors and bar/restaurant/deli/hotel license holders can sell wine and spirits to go (for an $8,000 annual fee ($4K for just wine/just spirits, and $2K for "specialty spirits," single category), and a limit of four bottles per sale unless you're a distributor); there are about 14,000 such licensees, and another 1,000 in escrow (some kept there deliberately by anti-drinking types).
  • The State Stores stay open
  • Distributors can sell sixpacks (as packaged by the manufacturer...killjoys); taverns can sell up to a case
  • Grocery stores still need a deli license -- no new licenses created -- and a cafe area, some minor restrictions on what can be sold at each register area are loosened
  • The PLCB remains as sole wholesaler; study of situation required after 2 years, if divestiture will not have "significant impact on the fiscal stability of the Commonwealth," the Legislature may consider selling the wholesale operations
  • PLCB as wholesaler is required "to buy any specific liquor or alcohol requested by a permit holder"
  • PLCB will ship to "permit holders" by the case for a fee; manufacturer/distributor can drop-ship directly to permit holders 
  • State Stores get "flexible pricing"
  • Licensees get an 18% discount on PLCB prices
  • Elimination of the Johnstown Flood Tax!
  • Direct wine shipment to citizens
  • "Windfall" money goes to senior citizen property tax relief
  • All retail liquor stores (State and private) to have consistent hours: 8 AM to 11 PM.
  • PLCB and permit holders are prohibited from selling private labels (buh-bye, TableLeaf!)
  • Creation of a Wine Industry Promotion Board (nothing about brewers or distillers)
  • Did I mention that the State Stores stay open?
 Well...My major issues, in another bullet point list.
  • The State Stores stay open, and with NO formula in place to close them. That's left to the discretion of the PLCB. Bad idea, verging on very bad idea. Rip off the band-aid.
  • Why stop at sixpacks? Take away all restraints on volumes: distributors and taverns can both sell everything from single bottles to kegs. And why "as packaged by the manufacturer"? Why no mixed six? They'll be pulling the wings off flies, next. If they do keep the stupid "compromise with no one" sixpack minimum, I nominate "as packaged by the manufacturer" as the first thing to go in the amendment process. It's just petty. If the store doesn't want to sell mixed sixes, they can make that a policy. Doesn't have to be a law.
  • Limits on wine and spirits sales for taverns/hotels/delis. If you're going to charge everyone $8,000, everyone should get the same deal.
  • Kick the licenses out of escrow with a "use it or lose it" clause. Any license unsold in escrow for more than two years reverts to the state.Why should they be wasted just because some Mennonite doesn't want me to have a drink?
  • Kill the cafe: this is an advantage for large supermarkets and hurts small grocers. 
  • End the police-enforced monopoly.
  • Privatize wholesale. Period.
Now...what I think we might get? Not much. I think this bill is either going to pass with relatively minor tweaking, or it's going to die. I'm hoping for more complete "package reform," and I'd really like to see an end to the insulting police-enforced monopoly, but I'm not holding my breath.

Actually, my hat's off to the Senator. I'd love to see all my major issues dealt with, and I do think that leaving the PLCB as wholesaler is going to be a disaster, but...he always said the hard part was coming up with something that could pass. I think he may have finessed that. He won't get any Democrat votes -- and bad cess to them, and especially the mule-mouthed Senator Ferlo -- but I think this could get 26 Republicans. I've got my fingers crossed.

And on that note...write your senators! Urge the Republicans to vote for this, and beg the Democrats to abstain. CC the Governor and make sure the Republican Senators you write to know that he needs this bill; CC your local representative to they know how you're pushing your senator. You know the union's doing it. Get off your ass and make it happen; this is the best chance privatization's had in 75 years. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.

Here's what I wrote to my Senator:

Dear Senator Tomlinson,

Senator McIlhinney's proposal for eventual liquor privatization is out, and I'm sure you have the details. The proposal doesn't close the State Stores, doesn't slash jobs, keeps the wholesale monopoly, covers the revenue, provides for senior citizen tax relief, gives Pennsylvanians at least some of the beer package reform they've been begging for, and gives beer distributors an affordable way to add wine and spirits to their businesses. Most importantly, it ADDS competition, choice, and convenience to wine and spirits retail for Pennsylvanians, without harming family-owned beer distributors.

It seems like a very good compromise, one that the House can approve, and that the Governor can sign for a much-needed legislative victory for the Republicans. I hope I can count on your vote for this proposal in its final form; it is, as I've told you, very much a ballot box issue for me.

Lew Bryson

Feel free to use some or all of it. DO IT!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

McIlhinney's Mistake?

McIlhinney's Mistake.

Is that what we're going to be calling the liquor "privatization" bill that comes out of the Senate's Law and Justice Committee next week? Senator Chuck McIlhinney is the majority chair of the committee, and he's telling anyone who will listen that he'll have a bill ready before the end of the legislative session on June 30, a privatization bill.

He's held three hearings -- generally described as "stacked" by reporters across the state, and they mean stacked against privatization -- in which he allowed the Democratic members of the committee free rein to pontificate, bloviate, and in Senator Ferlo's case, desecrate the reputations of several public figures, including the commander of the PA State Police. Only a few people who favored privatization who were allowed to speak, and at the end of their presentations and following grilling, McIlhinney would dismiss their testimony with a breezy "that's what you're saying, but that's not what's going to happen" statement from his chairman's position.

McIlhinney says he held these hearings to bring out the facts so he and his colleagues could make a decision on privatization. Really? First, be honest and admit that NO Democrats will vote for privatization, no matter what they hear: on this issue they're owned by the unions, and they do NOT want to see the Governor gain any legislative victories when they sense his re-election chances as weak. Those are their main issues. Second, everything McIlhinney's been saying indicates that his bill is going to be the same bizarre plan he's been talking about for almost two years.

Best guess at that, from things he's been saying: bars and restaurants should be allowed to sell full bottles of wine and spirits to go, the State Stores stay open, the case law stays and the beer in grocery stores situation remains in its ridiculous "cafe needed" state, and the PLCB remains as the state's sole wholesaler...and that's going to be "privatization," McIlhinney's Mistake-style.

Tell your Senator you want REAL privatization, not McIlhinney's Mistake. You want the State Stores gone in six months, Washington State style. You want privatization of wholesale. You want beer, wine, and spirits sold in the same store, and at least 2,000 of those stores -- whatever they are -- in the state. You want an immediate and simple end to the Case Law and its stupid brother, the 12-pack Law. You want an immediate end to the Police-Enforced Monopoly; Pennsylvanians can buy booze anywhere they want and bring it back into the state. And you want it all, now. 

If the Senator comes out with a real privatization bill? GREAT! But we need to get this done. We can't afford a mistake. Not McIlhinney's Mistake.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Money from privatization rolls in out in Washington

Just sent this to the members of the Pennsylvania Senate Law and Justice Committee:
To the honorable chairmen and members of the Senate Law and Justice Committee,
Greetings. I've watched all three of the hearings your committee has held on privatization of the current state monopoly on wholesale and retail sale of wine and spirits. One concern that seemed to come up time and again was that of consistency of revenue. You were presented with a baffling array of projected numbers: how much the Commonwealth would lose under privatization, how much it would gain, the amount various other states have lost or gained by privatizing.

One number that seemed to have escaped notice, however, is this one: $78 million. That's the increase in revenue from spirits sales that the Washington State government has seen in the year since they privatized their state-owned monopoly. If you're interested, the details are here.
(Please note that the $425 million figure in this article includes the $38 million the state made from the auction of retail licenses; the $78 million increase is taxes only.)

So if you're thinking about how privatization will affect revenue, and if that important consideration has an effect on your vote, please remember that privatization -- if done correctly -- can indeed increase revenue. We don't need to speculate. Washington has provided us with a real world experiment, and the outcome shows the benefits of privatization.
Thank you, and I hope you will consider all angles of this issue. I have high hopes of a good outcome from your deliberations, as this is a very important issue for me.

Lew Bryson

Yeah, I know: Washington raised the fees/taxes/grab on liquor, and that may be some of the nut. Trust me: they know that too. But even with higher taxes/fees/blood money, the prices in Washington -- as you'll see if you read the piece linked above -- are still close to what they were before. Without the increases? Who knows how low they might have gone, but the fact is, what kept them down was competition.

The Case Law, The Case Law, The Case Law. What will it take?

Lots to talk about with the final McIlhinney Hearing taking place yesterday, but one thing comes to the top: so-called "package reform," which is Harrisburgese for "gently adjusting the Case Law."

Look, I have a radical idea for "package reform." Step aside from liquor privatization for the ten minutes it should take to accomplish this! Separate bill, NOW:
"The Case Law Was A Stupid Mistake And We're Sorry" Bill, being a bill to eliminate ALL volume restrictions on individual beer sales by licensed retailers immediately.
Fill in the details -- that's what all those lawyers they keep chained up in caves under the Capitol Building are for -- remove all references to case/sixpack restrictions on sales in the Liquor Code, put it to a vote. No deals, no delays, no trade-offs, no suck-ups. Done.

Over 80% of Pennsylvanians oppose the Case Law; and the Legislature's been diddling around with changing it since I moved back to Pennsylvania in 1991. NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Why do we keep voting for these idiots?

Don't just read this. Copy it, send it to your legislator, and ask them WHY they can't do this one simple thing. Will it piss off the tavern owners, because now beer distributors can sell sixpacks? Sure, some of them. Will it piss off the beer distributors, because now the supermarkets with tavern licenses can sell cases and kegs? Sure, some of them. Will it make the state's brewers happy? Probably, they'll likely sell more beer. Will it make almost every beer-drinking Pennsylvanian happy? HELL YEAH! Hmmm...will it make the beer wholesalers happy? Actually, I don't know, but...

Come on! It's not going to make everyone happy, but it's going to make literally millions of us beer drinkers overjoyed!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Give Rep. Petri an Earful

Rep. Petri -- well-known as fairly soft on privatization -- has a liquor privatization survey up on his website. It's lengthy, it's somewhat slanted, but I'd encourage you to take it, and give thoughtful -- not shouty-stupid -- answers. We need to give him something to think about, not an excuse to dismiss. Beer is very much included, by the way.

I find this interesting, because it indicates that Petri does believe that some kind of privatization bill will come back from the Senate -- likely at the very last moment Senator Chuck "Footdragger" McIlhinney can engineer -- and he wants to be ready. We need to help him.

When he asks you where you want to buy booze, tell him YES. Sell it in groceries, gas stations, convenience stores, Target. Why not? Wegmans has a great record on preventing underage sales, and no gas station chain will want the fines that come with such sales. When he asks you what you want to buy there, tell him YES: beer, wine, and spirits. Again, why not? 

When he asks you "Do you think that Pennsylvania should retain the wholesale operation in order to avoid raising taxes to fill the loss of approximately $80 million in revenue?", tell him NO! Tell him that his numbers are speculative and pessimistic, and don't take into account all the revenues from a private system; privatization is going to be, at worst, a wash. And if it isn't? We already have some of the highest liquor and wine taxes in the country; maybe it's time the rest of the Commonwealth's citizens paid a little more of their fair share.

And it is a little: $80 million is a lot of money, but it's a tiny shred of the state's annual budget; they could recoup most of it by cutting out some of the ridiculous overspending at the Legislature itself (starting with the size of the thing). The main point here is that if Pennsylvania retains the wholesale operation, we're still leaving selection in the hands of a committee in Harrisburg: not what we're in this for at all, and he needs to understand that.

Take the survey, and think about it as you do. What do YOU really want from privatization?
  • Lower prices
  • Better in-store selection
  • More stores 
  • Better service
  • An end to the police-enforced monopoly
  • Wine and beer sales in supermarkets, drugstores, convenience stores
  • End the case law
  • End the state wholesale monopoly
Think about it...and then write your own senator and representative and tell them. And then tell them that this is a ballot issue for you, and you'll be watching how they vote. You might as well...because every State Store union member is.