The Times-Tribune

Ring out state booze monopoly

- BY BETH ANNE MUMFORD

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Unlike most states, Pennsylvan­ia maintains an out-of-date government monopoly on the sale of most bottles of alcohol.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.

 ?? PENNLIVE / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE ?? Nicole Wegman, Wegmans senior vice president, and Gov. Tom Wolf toast the introducti­on of supermarke­t wine sales Sept. 21 at the chain’s Mechanicsb­urg store. The state retains its wholesale monopoly and retail price controls.
PENNLIVE / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE Nicole Wegman, Wegmans senior vice president, and Gov. Tom Wolf toast the introducti­on of supermarke­t wine sales Sept. 21 at the chain’s Mechanicsb­urg store. The state retains its wholesale monopoly and retail price controls.

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