Thursday, June 2, 2022

Out Of Control

I've been at this for years, since 2008, although I did pretty much drop the ball during the pandemic (which I regret, deeply, because a LOT of things needed to be said, but that's virus over the dam now). One of the consistent themes through all of those years was the way the Liquor Control Board was actually out of control. 

I've brought up numerous examples of this. The famous wine kiosks, the Rise of Conti (and the essential abolishment of his CEO position after he fell from grace), numerous clashes with Governor Rendell (told you I'd been at this for years), the lying about 'variable pricing,' and the disastrous allocated whiskey lottery that they never could get right, and finally just gave up on.

Whoops, not THAT Frank Burns!

But one of the most egregious, amazing examples was one I missed during my COVID hiatus, when Representative Frank Burns (D-Johnstown) tried to find out how many "zombie" licenses the PCLB had for future auction (these are seized or unused licenses; after a year, under relatively new law, they revert to the PLCB, where they can be auctioned to the highest bidder). 

The PLCB said no! That's right: a government agency refused to give regulatory information to a duly-elected legislator. So Burns went to the Office of Open Records. They said the PLCB had to give him the information...and The Lords Of Liquor Control refused again, appealing to the Commonwealth Court. The court ruled in Burns's favor, so of course, the PLCB (which has an unending supply of crap lawyers) appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court. The PA Supremes fairly quickly denied the PLCB's appeal, upholding the Commonwealth Court ruling, giving the agency 30 days to present the information.

Yeah, I'm Frank Burns. Arrest the PLCB.
(And the snozzberries taste like snozzberries!)
Aside from the truly interesting fact that Rep. Burns is a Democrat, and the state Supreme Court has a solid Democratic majority (so they clearly do get what the PLCB is, but consistently refuse to privatize it), what do we learn here? 

The PLCB directly denied a legal request for information from a state legislator. This wasn't a frivolous request, like 'Hey, how many bottles of Maker's Mark do you guys have right now?' It was information that concerned constituent requests and a valid issue, namely, how is a purchaser supposed to know what the value of a license is when the PLCB won't tell them how many are going to be available? 

The PLCB gave its stock answer, which had always worked for it in the past: 'That's proprietary information, my good man.' But this time, they ran into someone who was just as willing to go to court as they were, and they lost. (Burns paid the legal costs out of his own pocket, by the way; the PLCB...yeah, they paid out of our pockets.)

Commonwealth Court Justice Cannon
They not only lost, the judge "bought none -- not one iota -- of what the Liquor Control Board was trying to sell. [Wow, the PLCB sucking at selling something; shocker.] The Right-to-Know Law is clear -- the information here is public record,” said Burns's lawyer, Terry Mutchler, the first director of the state's Office of Open Records. “It is a very strong decision that advances the law by giving deeper guidance on the components of records that agencies consider pre-deliberative. And also, because it points out that although the LCB may be ‘business-like,’ it is not a business.” (Yes, that's why I included the entire quote.) 

This is classic PLCB style. Don't just be wrong; deny you're wrong, waste thousands of taxpayer dollars denying you're wrong, and then when you're proven wrong, be assholes about it. Assholes? Yeah, the PLCB's main comment on the Supremes' decision was along the lines of, 'Wow, we were really looking forward to proving our case, but we've been denied justice.' Typical. 

This is all by way of proving the point I've been making for years, the one I simply cannot believe the General Assembly does not get: the PLCB is a rogue agency. Burns gets it. He believes that the Board wields too much power and has become arrogant and unresponsive to the public’s wishes. “The LCB has their own little kingdom with a moat around them for protection,” said Burns. “They’re not accountable to anyone, and that has to change. If they can treat a legislator like this you can only wonder how they treat other people out there.”

Bang on, Rep. Burns. The Liquor Control Board is literally out of control, and the reason is that it is answerable only to itself. It is a government agency with its own plentiful source of revenue. It has its own enforcement arm, its own courts and judges; it regularly thumbs its nose at the legislature, the governor, and the Pennsylvania courts; and it arbitrarily changes state-written regulations by 'interpreting' them as they wish.

It does not need to be reformed, or 'brought to heel,' or be regulated. It needs to be done away with. It serves no purpose that is not either anti-consumer or superfluous. Everything the PLCB does can be done more efficiently by existing state agencies. Except the actual wholesale and retail sale of booze: thanks, we can do that better on our own, no state agency required. 

Here's how I laid it out almost exactly 14 years ago in this blog: "...privatize booze sales, put licensing and inspection in the hands of the Dept. of Agriculture, tax collection in the purview of the Dept. of Revenue (they've got some experience with that), put the anti-alcoholism and underage drinking prevention programs under the Dept. of Health, and fully hand over enforcement to the State Police. [Then] give a re-write of the [Liquor] Code over to a commission that includes interested consumers for a change, and charge them with writing a simpler, more understandable Code."

The PLCB shut down for six weeks during the pandemic, and Wolf himself said  (link goes to a PDF) we didn't need them, because now we could buy booze at the Acme store. The PLCB is corrupt, the PLCB is outdated, the PLCB has only 600 stores for the entire state. The PLCB won't let you buy booze in Jersey or Delaware, they force us to buy from them

Why the hell aren't we done with this? Why does the Legislature put up with it? 

Privatize. End this out of control agency.