Pa. Government Should Get Out Of The Liquor Business

Pottsville Mercury

Gov. Tom Corbett and some state lawmakers have an idea for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board: They want to get it out of the business of selling wine and liquor. Privatizing the liquor stores is certainly not a new proposal, but it’s one that’s gotten some fresh legs since Corbett took office in January.

Opposition remains strong, however, among organized labor and those who claim the state stores are too lucrative a source of revenue for the commonwealth to give up. That argument, plus the added benefit the stores supposedly provide in controlling illegal sales of alcohol, so far have trumped complaints that LCB prices are too high and too little attention is paid to customer convenience.

The LCB tried to address the convenience issue by installing wine vending machines in supermarkets around the state. Upscale Wegmans Food Markets agreed to install kiosks in 10 of its Pennsylvania locations, only to end its agreement less than a year later amid complaints of machine malfunctions, limited selection and lack of personal service. The machines’ contractor said the mechanical breakdowns were overblown all along and are even less of a problem now. Still to be resolved are poor selection and no service.

And this: Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner took aim at the “profitability” of the wine kiosks (two weeks ago), noting that his staff found the LCB spent $1.1 million more to operate the vending machines than it took in through June 30. The liquor agency has 22 kiosks, and earlier this year a spokeswoman said there were plans for more despite the sour Wegmans experience. The auditor general’s findings might be a good reason to rethink that expansion strategy.

Wagner believes the way to best achieve customer convenience is to grant the liquor stores longer operating hours: “seven days a week, 12 hours a day.” Liquor Control Board CEO Joe Conti seconds the idea of longer store hours.

That would make the customer experience more convenient. But it skirts the fundamental issue of whether the state belongs in the liquor business, going on 80 years. Private wine, liquor and beer sales in other states have not caused the downfall of society. They have given consumers convenience, good choices and good prices while allowing for state regulation and taxation.

Bringing liquor sales into the 21st century through a network of privately operated, state-monitored liquor stores would serve the entire commonwealth.

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