Ring out state booze monopoly
GUEST COLUMNIST With holiday parties and end-of-year festivities now underway, many Pennsylvanians hope to enjoy a celebratory alcoholic beverage. For yet another year, however, it will be up to government bureaucrats to decide how we get that drink.
Unlike most states, Pennsylvania maintains an out-of-date government monopoly on the sale of most bottles of alcohol. Although some restrictions were loosened earlier this year, Keystone State bureaucrats still saddle our drinks with all kinds of mind-boggling regulations.
It’s too late for Harrisburg lawmakers to change the laws in time for New Year’s Eve champagne toasts. That said, when lawmakers return to the General Assembly a few days after the New Year, one major priority should be updating our liquor laws for the 21st Century.
Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws are a product of the early 20th Century. In 1933, thenGov. Gifford Pinchot heralded the enforcement of a government monopoly over liquor sales. His explicit goal was to “discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible.”
Although some lawmakers now justify the liquor monopoly based on the tax income it brings in, the inconvenient and expensive part still hold true. Most hard liquor must be purchased from stores operated by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. The prices of items sold in these stores, the hours of operation, and other policies are all set by the state.
This is a fiercely guarded monopoly. State officials can fine individuals who bring alcohol over state lines, even for private consumption.
Although certain grocery stores and gas stations can sell wine or beer, they are required to purchase their stock from the PLCB.
Act 39, which Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law this past summer, was supposed to make the system less bureaucratic. Yet Pennsylvanians hoping to uncork a bottle must satisfy all kinds of arbitrary requirements. An out-of-state wine vendor, for example, must file a written application and pay a $250 fee, collect sales taxes and special liquor taxes, transport its goods via state-sanctioned transportation providers, and renew its license every year.
It doesn’t matter whether you buy your alcohol in-state or get it elsewhere. If you’re looking to enjoy a drink within our borders, there’s a possibility the experience may be a bureaucratic nightmare — perhaps even enough to drive you to drink.
And it’s not for a good cause—a government monopoly over alcohol sales is just another way for Harrisburg to maximize the amount of tax dollars it brings in. For example, Pennsylvanians still pay an 18 percent tax on liquor. This same tax was created over 70 years ago, ostensibly to pay for the Johnstown Flood disaster. Although Johnstown has long since recovered, we’re still paying this tax.
The sad thing is that the state isn’t even good at being a liquor vendor. According to the PLCB’s 2016 annual report, its unfunded liabilities are rapidly expanding, largely due to pensions it offers employees. The number of state liquor stores is getting smaller, and high numbers of sales led to an hour-long crash in PLCB’s payment system just before Thanksgiving this year.
It doesn’t make sense to put alcoholic beverages at the mercy of our commonwealth’s bureaucrats and budgetary pressures. Other states have proved that private individuals can handle the process of selling and transporting alcohol.
And if the multitude of other taxes we send Harrisburg aren’t enough to fund government services without the commonwealth running a liquor business on the side, nothing will ever be enough.
The commonwealth should end its monopoly on liquor sales and leave it to entrepreneurs who know the business. When lawmakers make a toast at the end of the year, their New Year’s resolution should be to make it easier for all Pennsylvanians to pop a cork.