Thursday, May 26, 2016

BEER IN GAS STATIONS!!! No, it's not, and Wolf had nothing to do with it

Everyone's losing their minds because Pennsylvania gas stations can now sell beer, and Governor Wolf made it happen. We saw headlines like this (exclamations added..):

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Approves 6-Pack Sales At Gas Stations!
Pa. Liquor Control Board allows gas stations to sell 6-packs!
Gas and brews: Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board approves beer sales at gas stations!
Pennsylvania Finally Catches Up With The Rest Of America, Legalizes Selling Six-Packs Of Beer At Gas Stations!

No, no, and no. Gas stations near you probably still won't be selling beer (without jumping through ridiculous hoops first) and Governor Wolf had nothing to do with it. It's just one more chunk of pathetic bullshit from Harrisburg, designed to dazzle and placate you and keep your mind off how crappy the booze sales system in this state is. Allow me to explain.

First? This is about nine gas stations in the entire state which bought existing licenses (of various types; that's explained quite well here if you're interested) -- like the supermarkets that are "allowed" to sell beer 12 bottles at a time -- and just wanted to have those licenses approved...because, of course, the Almighty Liquor Code actually "prohibits the sale of liquid fuels or oil by licensees."

Just add beer...sorry, not allowed in Pennsylvania!
So that means that the Board is once again ignoring the law ("The board shall refuse any application for a new license, the transfer of any license to a new location or the extension of any license to cover an additional area where the sale of liquid fuels or oil is conducted"), just like it did last year when it said a 12-pack is a case. ("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").

Now, I'm all in favor of ignoring the Almighty Liquor Code myself; I do it all the time by running to NJ for booze. But it's one thing when I do it; it's completely something else when the state regulatory agency in charge of enforcing and interpreting The Almighty Liquor Code is doing it. This kind of arbitrary decision leads to madness and badness.

What kind of badness? Realize this: every time one of these gas stations buys a license, that's a bar license (R license, "deli" license, or a straight-up D distributor license; they're buying whatever they can get their hands on) that's out of circulation for years, not being used as intended. Ordinarily, I'd say, who cares? But this is Pennsylvania, where the number of bar licenses is limited by population: 1 license per 3,000 people per county. Then realize that bar and deli licenses, unlike every other kind of license, can be bought and sold on the open market for whatever the market will bear, and you see that every gas station and supermarket that buys a license makes the price of other licenses higher. And that means fewer start-up bars, more chain restaurants, and more high-end expensive bars...and more bars that are likely to try to sell as much booze as possible to make that monthly payment on the license. Not good. I wrote about that here. What else? Well, how about...the Board can easily play favorites, because they can decide the next batch of applications don't get approved, and they don't have to give any reason, nor are they bound by precedent...because that's how the PLCB works. Every ruling stands on its own. Period.

It would be much better to have a new license for retail beer sales, without the stupid 12-pack restrictions and separate register foolishness, than to continue to do this workaround. But that would require the Legislature to do something, and that would upset the tavern owners AND the beer distributors...even more than this is.

To my pleased surprise, the decision also was not well-received by the Brewers of Pennsylvania, who responded -- correctly!-- that "To truly “free the six-pack” as Governor Wolf requested from the PLCB, then the future call to action must be to allow six-packs to be sold in many more businesses than just gas stations... To truly achieve consumer convenience as well as provide for a variety of purchasing options for consumers, the BOP highly recommends allowing six-pack sales in all channels of trade. Doing so would immediately benefit all small craft beer producers in Pennsylvania..." BOP president Bill Covaleski (of Victory Brewing) told me "the consumer is at the forefront of our thinking. We are headed in the direction of the consumer, we need them to tell us where that is." He noted that "where that is" clearly seemed to be in every grocery store and convenience store. It's refreshing to see that the brewers get what the Legislature doesn't: the consumers should be considered first, not the special interest groups.

Second? Once again, this is about nine gas stations in the entire state. It does NOT mean "gas stations can sell sixpacks." You won't be seeing beer at every Wawa anytime soon, especially not in southeast Pennsylvania, because bar licenses are really freakin' expensive here; like around $400,000 in Montgomery County. So why is everyone so excited? Because Governor Wolf made a big deal about this.
Yay me! I wroted a letter!
Third? What does Governor Wolf have to do with it? Nothing but shameless self-promotion, that's what. Wolf heard that the PLCB was about to vote on these applications, and like everyone else in Harrisburg, he knew the PLCB was likely to say yes. So he sent them a letter asking them to do that as a favor to his friends, the people of Pennsylvania, and then made a big stinking deal out of it when they approved the applications. As a friend of mine said, tomorrow Wolf will send out a press release predicting the sun's gonna rise in the east, and he'll be two for two!

Did anyone know Wolf was a big supporter of "free the six pack"? No, you didn't, because "Free the six pack" was just something Wolf hitched his wagon to the day before the PLCB was going to approve these piddling nine applications. He's an opportunistic fraud.

To recap: not much has changed; Wolf had nothing to do with it; and this is still a terrible way to change things. As I've said for years, the arbitrary nature of the PLCB and the byzantine impenetrability of the Almighty Liquor Code make for an ever-worsening situation here.

So when you don't see beer at your local gas station...remember this, will ya? And tell your legislators to Rewrite The Code, with you in mind, not the unions and the beer distributors and the tavern owners and the convenience stores and Pat Deon. It's the only way we'll ever change this.

Meanwhile, in Saskatchewan...

How long has booze privatization been debated and promised in Pennsylvania? Decades.
How much has been done about booze privatization in Pennsylvania? Nothing. 

Meanwhile, in Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Party campaigned this spring on a platform that included transitioning their provincial monopoly liquor stores to privately-owned stores. They were put in power by the electorate, and now, less than two months later,, they've announced that they will convert 40 of the 75 government liquor outlets to private stores, and create twelve new private stores.

Dear Pennsylvania General Assembly:

Monday, May 23, 2016

Chuck McIlhinney gives it to us again

Senator Chuck McIlhinney, the current Chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee (the Senate committee responsible for liquor laws, among others), again proves that there isn't a law he won't muck up. As far as any "Justice" for the citizens goes, the very idea eludes him.

He has not only sent the "National Event License" bill (HB 1196) out of his committee to the full Senate (which then immediately approved it by a shameful 50-0 vote), he braggingly explained it to reporters like this: "Bring your booze, have it at your party, enjoy yourself responsibly, and then go home." (This ignores the fact that ordinary Pennsylvanians have not been allowed to do that for well over 50 years.) Having proven time after time that he doesn't have the stones to admit that the Pennsylvania liquor monopoly is a joke nationwide, he instead tries to hide the abomination we all have to live and deal with by doing special favors, bending the rules for political reasons. 

I live by these should too.
When you start treating those who govern differently than those they govern, there is a problem. It's called entitlement. And it's not so much that he thinks he and his fellow politicians are entitled but that the almost 13 million citizens of the Commonwealth aren't. That we don't deserve to be freed from the idiocy of the PLCB and their little fiefdom of incompetence, but that those who in some way, some how, can or may give him an imaginary pat on the back or "contribution," shouldn't have their party spoiled by the state monopoly's crap booze selection and non-existent licensee service.

Or in his words "....we're not going to put it in our liquor stores for four days and then sell it to them and then have to be stuck with it" Except that if it isn't in the stores now it has to be ordered by SLO, which means that it is at least half paid for already! The PLCB won't be "stuck" with anything since they have half the money already and still can sell the product.  What kind of idiot in charge of PLCB legislation doesn't know how the PLCB works?

If screwing the public out of private liquor and wine sales with his propaganda show-trial "public hearings"* wasn't bad enough, he now thinks that flaunting his incredibly bad decision-making is something the public wants to see and hear about. Is Chuck a  tool of anti-privatization? A tool of the beer distributors? A secret tool of the Democrats? Or maybe...just a tool.

We need less unfair Law and a lot more Justice from you and your committee, Senator.

*Which strangely enough, didn't have any members of the actual public involved.  No citizens that didn't have interest groups or businesses behind them were invited, and only a token few of those that were in favor of privatization, even though we comprise a majority of the people.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Quick, Clean Up Those Liquor Laws: The Neighbors Are Visiting!

5-20-2016: This piece has been updated after a full reading of the bill as released by Sen. McIlhinney's committee and subsequently swiftly approved 50-0 by the Senate. Updates are italicized; deleted words are struck out.

This headline in Tuesday's Inquirer caught my eye this morning:

Pa. May Ease Liquor Rules For Democratic Convention

Here's the piece, describing likely temporary changes in The Almighty Liquor Code for the duration of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia later this summer.

Short version: the Legislature feels politicians' pain, but not yours.

"C" is for "Cheat"
Less-short-but-still-short version: Bars can stay open past 2 AM while the convention's in session — four whole days — if they are granted a special license, which costs $5,000, and is only available for events directly related to the convention (What's odd: it's not clear if the event license applies to individual licensees, or the event premises, or wherever the "national event" decides to serve booze). Even more galling: for that time period only, these special licensees will be able to buy receive booze directly from out of state for those four days, unlike you...ever! This is so state delegations can get their favorite hometown booze (Washington State wines, Maine craft spirits), recognizing that (as our old pal, Senator Chuck McIlhinney, who passed the House bill out of committee, put it) "we're not going to put it in our liquor stores for four days and then sell it to them and then have to be stuck with it." Well...probably sounded good to him at the time. What Chuck probably meant to say was that it would be unreasonable to expect the clerks to have to deal with a bunch of interesting new products, so let's arbitrarily bend the law instead. Right, Chuck? That's what you do over in the Law & Justice Committee, after all.

Our version: Someone in the Legislature got a rush of blood to the brain and realized that conventions run on booze -- they do, even the Democrats, and don't even start on the whole weed thing -- and that our booze laws suck so bad that it could hurt future convention, wait, if that was it, they'd make these changes permanent for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, because that's true for every convention, not just political ones.

No, this is, as usual, about different rules for the ruling class, and charging you to pay for them. Because if you think that the bars who get those special licenses are going to pay for them in four days, or even try to pay them off in four days, you're dreaming. You'll be paying for them. Lucky you. (Okay, what's likely to happen is that some deal will be struck that the licenses are paid for as part of the venue payment, or covered by the donations of free booze.) And if the licensees are smart, they're going to stock up like mad during those four days, get Total Wine to ship in truckloads of booze to beat the PLCB like a gong. There is no limit on how much booze can be brought in, either. In the words of the bill as it stands, the licensees may "ACCEPT, IMPORT, POSSESS OR RESELL 
THE DONATED BRANDS ARE REGISTERED WITH THE BOARD AND THE BOARD APPROVES THE ARRANGEMENT." Note that this kind of arrangement would be exactly the kind of thing that could normally cause a licensee to be fined, possibly even lose their license.

Is that even how the law would work? Who knows, because McIlhinney had his fingers all over it, so it's likely to be something completely novel that no one asked for or wanted. Would you pay $5,000 for the "right" to be open from 2 AM to 4 AM for four days? For a bunch of drunken strangers? (On the other hand, would you pay $5,000 for the "right" to buy booze from regular wholesalers, rather than the PLCB? Just for the novelty of someone delivering the booze to you for a change? Hey, maybe!)

Leave out the longer hours, which is window-dressing: all they'd have to do to achieve this is to tell the BLCE to stay away from Philadelphia and give the bars the high sign. This is nothing more or less than an admission that the PLCB can't deliver what wholesalers and retailers in other states do routinely: put new products on the shelves (not in some airy-fairy "online store" that no one can search properly) in a timely manner by delivering them directly to bars. An admission that the state's booze monopoly is a failed, broken system that can't do what business needs.

If it needs to be fixed for four needs to be fixed for good. And we know the way to fix it. The Inquirer knows, too. They ran this editorial on May 20: have a look. The House GOP caucus should belatedly redeem themselves by refusing to pass this deeply cynical bill. Failing that, the Governor should veto this unabashed deal-making. And if they don't, we the people should raise hell.

Privatize it. The time is now. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Madness Just Won't Stop

Some random thoughts.

A little bit of turmoil at the top of the PLCB financial empire? First August Hehemann was let go on November 10, 2014 after saying the PLCB needed to raise prices to offset the continued growth of other words, for telling the truth. His replacement,  Oren Bachman, barely makes 15 months and now they are looking for his replacement. Of course, the fiscal year ends in about 50 days, so you have to wonder how long it will take to spin the financials this year with a new guy (or not) there. It took 125 days last year.

One of the better comments about privatizing the PLCB in the past few months: "How seriously can we take the argument that unnecessary government jobs should not be eliminated...because then there will be fewer unnecessary government jobs?"

The PLCB, moving at a speed unheard of in real business, only took 5 years and 10 days to approve a new store in Renovo. Of course, it isn't open yet, and might take who knows how long to actually open, but it made the list.  The new store at 167 Seventh St. is a whopping 327 feet from where the old store was at 536 Erie Ave. This beats the old record of taking over a year to move the Mountain Top Store 50 feet. I wonder if the blogs of last year and this year helped move them along, and if it did how many more years would it have taken otherwise? "Convenience is our middle name.  PLCB convenience that is, we don't give a crap about the consumer" could be the motto of the state stores.
Crap!  I'll never finish modernizing like this!
Canada is again showing how much more progressive they are in some things. A recent court case tossed out provincial restrictions on the purchase and transfer of beer, wine, and liquor from one province to another. It could potentially change the entire Canadian system of trade between the provinces. This is something that Pennsylvania (and U.S. constitutional courts) should look closely at.

Why was it good to have a restaurant or bar license for every 1,000 people in your Grandfather's day, one for every 2,000 people in your Father's day, but not now when it is one for every 3,000 people? What has changed? The PLCB of course, not the citizens' desire to have a drink with their food or to go out. Why is it up to them and not local government to decide what is best for their local citizens?

The PLCB serves no useful purpose in retail, it does not provide better selection, it does not provide better service, and it does not provide the convenience the citizens want. It cannot even be proved definitively that it provides more revenue to the Commonwealth than a competitive private system would. It only provides jobs to the PLCB.

While I wait (and I've been waiting a very long time) for someone to come up with a quote about why a government monopoly on a retail good is something worthwhile, I'll leave you with this:

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."   - C.S. Lewis


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Past is Prologue: don't forget the wine kiosks

"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." 

 We laugh at the idea of the wine kiosks now. That was in the past, and it was crazy, but, we tell ourselves, it's over now, and even the PLCB gets it. That was just that crazy Joe "Da CEO" Conti and his effort to make the PLCB "modern" (and maybe pay off some political cronies).

Except many of the people responsible for the wine kiosks, the bureaucrats, are still in place. Conti's gone, and PJ "PJ" Stapleton is gone, and James "Fall Guy" Short is gone (though still not sentenced...), but the faceless minions at 910 Capital Street are largely still there, still making some great decisions.

Remember those? Going $33+ million over budget for the new computer system, basically because they couldn't read a contract. Storing wine in un-air conditioned trailers in the summer. The keen plan to undercut PA wine producers with out of state house brands. And paying an out of state company about $4 million to come up with the incredibly generic "Fine Wine And Good Spirits." (Considering they were called "Wine and Spirits Shoppes" before, that comes out to about $2 million a word for adding "Fine" and "Good." Great spend, guys.)

Wine Kiosks Redux
Still, the wine kiosks were such a disaster, one that made Pennsylvania a national laughingstock, that it's worth having a full look at just how stupid it all was, and exactly how it happened. First, a summation from House Speaker Mike Turzai, from when the kiosks fell apart, back in September 2011.

Wine Kiosks A Big Mistake From The Beginning 
9/20/2011 – Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) released the following statement regarding the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s (PLCB) decision to end the wine kiosk program:
“I don’t think it comes as a shock to anyone outside the PLCB’s top echelon that the wine kiosk program was a complete failure. The kiosk program was a joke from the very beginning and the PLCB knew it. The agency’s own internal evaluation committee recommended against the kiosk idea. Yet the board went through with the cockamamie program anyway.
“This is just another example of why a government agency should not be attempting to mimic private industry. The wine kiosk program resulted in machines that sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t; and it forced consumers to actually blow into a cumbersome machine – no one wants to buy wine that way. Real customer convenience will only come once the sale of wine and spirits is moved to the private sector.”

How did it actually happen? How did we wind up with the Incredible Robot Wine Army? We've got it all, right here.

PLCB Wine Kiosk Timeline: (be sure to check the links!)
  • March 28, 2008 – Public Notice of Wine Kiosk RFP on PLCB and DGS websites; proposals due May 8, 2008. Simple Brands (Simple) is the only applicant.
  • July 9, 2008 – PLCB RFP Evaluation Committee submits report to PLCB Chief Counsel’s Office for inclusion in that day’s board meeting. Report advises against contracting with Simple, not a well-founded business plan; failure to get advisory opinion from TTB (federal government) on permissibility of Kiosk program; awards Simple a score of 305 out of 1,000 points for its proposal.
  • July 9, 2008 – RFP Evaluation Committee advised that the board would not be reviewing the committee’s report; committee members told to destroy all copies/documentation relating to the report; and that CEO Joe Conti would meet with them on July 10.
  • July 9, 2008 – LCB members met and voted to approve Simple Brands proposal.
  • July 10, 2008 – Conti met with Evaluation Committee members, told them not to speak of the evaluation; to destroy all copies; and their concerns would “be taken care of.” (Copies of cover-up RFP and emails)
  • January 29, 2009 – Effective date for Contract 20080318 between LCB and Simple for 100 wine kiosk vending machines.
  • June 30, 2009 – Relationship between Simple investors and former Governor Ed Rendell discovered: Investor Herbert Vederman gave Mr. Rendell $346,276, including a $100,000 lump sum in 2002, campaign finance records show. Mr. Vederman also served as the governor's campaign finance chairman. His business partner, Ira Lubert, meanwhile, gave Mr. Rendell $140,980 in that time period.
  • June 23, 2010LCB places two kiosks in Harrisburg area grocery stores: Giant Foods in Dauphin County and Wegman’s in Cumberland County.
  • June 30, 2010 – End of FY 09-10, Profit and Loss statement. Kiosk program showed a net loss of $255,077.
  • July 9, 2010 – LCB conditionally accepts delivery of two kiosk machines subject to Simple remedying operational problems with the machines (doors failing to open or close, credit card machine failures and general failures with particular transactions).
  • September 1, 2010 – Second letter sent to Simple giving conditional acceptance of two kiosks provided they remedy operational problems within 60 days of notice.
  • September 8, 2010 – Contract with Simple amended to include a $1 per transaction fee (collected from the consumer and paid to Simple) and a 50-cent per bottle “advertising fee.” The amount to be paid to Simple for advertising was capped at $1.5 million per year. PLCB also warned Simple that it would not accept delivery of additional kiosks (only two were in operation at the time) unless the various problems previously identified by the board were remedied.
  • October 15, 2010 – LCB announces roll-out of more kiosks throughout the state. According to LCB press release: “We’ve been testing the Pronto Wine Kiosks at two supermarkets in the Harrisburg area for the past three months,” said Board Chairman Patrick J. “PJ” Stapleton. “The kiosks have proven to be safe and reliable and we are looking forward to giving consumers across Pennsylvania the opportunity to do one-stop shopping.”
  • December 21, 2010 – PLCB takes all 29 wine kiosks out of service due to systemic problems. (Note the date: right in the midst of the busiest booze sales of the year.)  LCB Press release: “While customer satisfaction with the six-month old kiosk program remains high, recent problems -- such as product not dispensing -- require us to take immediate action while we wait for the manufacturer to correct all of the identified issues,” said Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Chairman Patrick J. “PJ” Stapleton. “We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause our customers and supermarket partners, but felt this temporary closure was critical to the future success of the program.”
  • December 22, 2010 – Board notifies Simple that the Kiosks were taken out of service because Simple failed to remedy the various problems with the Kiosks. According to the Board: “While most of the several hundred specific instances were eventually resolved, the recurring nature of the problems confirms that the problems are systemic, rather than isolated.” Simple was advised to deliver fully functioning wine kiosks, and a certification that the systemic problems had been rectified by March 14, 2011
  • December 30, 2010 – PA Auditor General notifies the board of its Wine Kiosk performance audit and advises LCB to preserve and maintain any and all documents and materials (including e-mails) relating to the kiosk project. 
  • February 22, 2011 – Simple hopes to expand to smaller kiosks at convenience stores like Wawa and Sheetz – per letter to the Board.
  • June 2010 – Wegman’s notifies LCB it will terminate its “kiosk” relationship.
  • June 25, 2011 – Right-To-Know-Law request submitted to LCB by House Majority Leader Turzai requesting a copy of the TTB advisory required by the RFP; all costs associated with Kiosk program and all invoices to, and payments from, Simple pursuant to the contract
  • June 30, 2011 – End of FY 10-11, Profit and Loss statement. Kiosk program showed a net loss of $843,369 for FY-10-11; Additional losses (not accounted for on prior FY P&L statement) of $24,877. Total net loss for project: $1,123,323.
  • August 4, 2011 – Response from LCB indicates Simple failed to obtain TTB advice and that no billing had been done up to that point, but LCB was in the process of sending the Profit and Loss statement to Simple for payment.
  • August 5, 2011 – Board demands payment from Simple.
  • August 15, 2011 – Walmart advises PLCB it will not participate in the Kiosk program (23 machines were planned for Walmart stores).
  • August 17, 2011 – PLCB chief Joe Conti indicates the agency will continue the wine kiosks once its litigation is resolved. "This was not a faulty fiscal decision," Conti said.
  • September 1, 2011 – PA Auditor General issues audit detailing the failed program.
  • September 16, 2011 – PA Independent reporter Eric Boehm reports, contrary to public comments and direct testimony, PLCB failed to conduct any market research in relation to the kiosk program.
  • September 20, 2011 – PLCB announces the end of the failed kiosk program; it pulls the plug on remaining machines in several supermarkets. 
  • January 25, 2015 PLCB legal costs for the "free" kiosks have exceeded $300,000 pushing total losses to $1.5 million, not counting PLCB resources and personnel costs, which have never been accounted for.
So here it is, five years later, and the PLCB insiders and their supporters have made sure that NOBODY has been held responsible, even though there are absolute violations of the PLCB Code of Conduct in that: "No member or employee of the Board shall: use for personal gain or for the gain of others any information obtained as a result of service or employment with the Board, and not available to the public at large."

Having reports destroyed does not make things available to the public at large. Plain and simple.

While the Board may have changed, the entire Directorship are people who were brought up in this system, ingrained with this way of doing things and tacitly approved the entire fiasco by not doing or saying anything. These are the people who are going to "modernize" the PLCB. Do we really need them to do that? Do we need them at all?