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Saturday, April 6, 2013


The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Apr 03, 2013

By Thom Nickels

On March 22, the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives voted to end the legacy of Prohibition in the Keystone State. The House voted to privatize wine and liquor sales, a positive move that promises to shift the state into the 21st Century.

Lightning did not strike the state capitol when this happened, although it might as well have because now we are seeing state liquor store clerks defending the state store system despite the fact that the vast majority of Pennsylvanians want privatization. On a human level, one can understand why the state store clerks are rising up in protest: they want to save their jobs, an understandable albeit selfish sentiment that pretty much ignores the wishes of the majority: to get the state out of the business of selling alcohol. Unfortunately, the longer the state is involved in the sale of alcohol, the harder it will be to uproot that alliance. We are seeing the first effects of that rupture now.

The fact that every Democrat in the House voted against privatization is a curious thing indeed. Think about it: Democrats voting with the status quo, to retain an antiquated system with roots going back to the days of bathtub gin? Aren’t Democrats supposed to side with the will of the people?

Privatization, generally, is not a good thing. Privatization ruined the airline industry, it threatens to destroy the US Post Office (and replace it with expensive Fed Ex-style deliveries), and it is always ready to pounce on Social Security. Yet privatization in this case is a good thing, and the Pennsylvania Democrats who voted against the measure stooped to a new low when they stated that it (privatization) was "as bad morally as it was fiscally," and that "increased access to drinking would lead to increased drinking and the social ills that come with it."


As a registered Democrat, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a Democrat say that something could be "bad morally." The "bad morally" phrase is usually reserved for right-of-center Republicans on any number of social issues. Democrats, at least in the abstract, are supposed to be moral relativists, so this "moral" thing is peculiar indeed.

Murdering your neighbor or trashing his car might be "bad morally", but how is a greater access to a bottle of wine for a dinner party "bad morally"? This is what those Democrats are saying: If wine and spirits are sold everywhere, the average person will fall prey to temptation and desire to overindulge. This is a Prohibition mindset that the state has been fostering since the state store system began. But civilization will not fall if a bottle of Merlot is sold next to the Tastykakes in the local grocery store.

I’m sorry—no, I’m not—but responsible citizens should not be held hostage because there are undisciplined folks who do fall prey to sloppy overindulgence. I would have had more respect for the Democrats who voted against privatization if they had said that they were concerned about the loss of union jobs or the loss of PLCB annual profits totaling some $170 million which go into state coffers. Instead they blabbered on about "social ills."

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term "social ills" I think of mass murders in movie theaters, shootings in Old City, or even a random baby stroller murder on a sunny afternoon. What does Fish Eye wine for sale in Thriftway have to do with social illness?

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has done a lot to adapt to the modern age, such as initializing Sunday sales and regular wine tasting events in random stores. A few years ago there was a master plan in the works to put wine vending machines (kiosks) in up to 100 supermarkets. Obviously, this project failed. The kiosks were supposed to hold a number of popular wines chosen by the LCB while the machines would have filtered out purchases by minors and the intoxicated. While the "how-to science" of these filters was never made clear, the proposed prototype was supposed to get a test run in Harrisburg. Years ago, Governor Rendell (swayed by unions) postponed and then nixed the pilot program.

For anyone who has traveled to New York, California and to the South—where wine can be purchased in local supermarkets—Pennsylvania’s LCB system seems like an H.G. Wells trip into medieval times. Walk the streets of Manhattan, and you’ll find it hard to count the number of shops that sell wine. Or travel to Canada where you will see wine for sale beside candy bars and pound cake in neighborhood drug stores.

Decades ago when you walked into a Philadelphia state store you had to ask a guy behind the counter for what you wanted. They had state store catalogs with numbers; the customer would give the guy a number, he’d disappear into the back and come back with the bottle. The operation was run like a pawn shop. Not only that, but by law the guy behind the counter couldn’t give you any recommendations.

In 2003, I interviewed then Director of Communications for the LCB Bill Epstein about the possibility of change for Pennsylvania. At that time, Epstein told me: "If you look at the political horizon as I understand it, it is hard to paint a picture for any major change in the LCB anytime soon." This despite the fact that in 2003, a Hershey Philbin Associates Online Poll revealed that 75% of Pennsylvanians said they favored abolishing the LCB.

The poll numbers since then have favored privatization even more, although politicians—in this case, Democrats—never seem to listen to their constituents.

So don’t expect any miracles when the privatization bill comes up before the PA Senate. While Pennsylvanians want privatization, politicians have SHS (Selective Hearing Syndrome). As Epstein told me then, "I have people marching in front of my building and our stores who say that we should not be open on Sunday, that we should not allow credit card sales, or go into supermarkets. These self-appointed guardians of moral standards are really Prohibitionists."

"There is a coalition of conservatives who don’t believe that availability to alcohol ought to be expanded. There’s also a group of legislators who want to protect jobs at state stores, and these two forces combine to be a potent political road block to modernizing the system," Chuck Ardo, Press Secretary for Governor Rendell, told me back in 2009.

Face it, folks: Pennsylvania may never change.

Proposed Mormon Temple for Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Pennsylvania and Utah are the only two states in the nation that still have Prohibition-style state controled alochol sales. Will Pennsylvania ever change?