“Getting Pennsylvania out of the liquor business, as Gov. Tom Corbett proposes to do, is a good idea — one that’s been kicking around for 80 years. Corbett’s plan would transform the state’s control of beer, wine and liquor sales into a market-driven system, channeling up to $1 billion from the sale of retail and wholesale licenses into block grants for public schools.
Yes, yes, yes.
This remnant of Prohibition must be dismantled in a deliberate, cover-all-the-bases approach. Corbett’s plan addresses the inflexibility of a bureaucracy that has tried to do the impossible — perform as a competitive, consumer-friendly booze merchant run by the suits in Harrisburg.
“I want Pennsylvanians to enjoy the same convenience that virtually every other American today has,” Corbett said at a news conference Wednesday. “The state will no longer be a marketer of alcohol; it will now focus on its role as a regulator. It also creates an unprecedented opportunity for economic expansion for private sector employers while remaining revenue neutral for the state.”
To that end, privatization would double the outlets selling wine and liquor, from 600 state stores to 1,200 private stores. Limited sales of beer and wine would be permitted in supermarkets, convenience and drug stores, and big-box retailers. Beer distributors could buy “enhanced” licenses, allowing them to sell beer in six-packs, along with wine. Taverns and restaurants could sell beer and up to six bottles of wine for takeout.
Proceeds from the license sales would go to public school districts — for security, early and individualized learning, and science and technology programs. While this might blunt criticism of Corbett’s stinginess toward education, it also raises a question of how districts would cope after a one-shot revenue stream dries up.
Still, Corbett and legislators can’t lose sight of the prize — putting alcohol sales in private hands, where it belongs, giving people convenience and competitive pricing, and making sure the enforcement function can deal with an expansion of sellers.
Other governors and legislatures have tried to cross this threshold and failed. With Corbett’s fellow Republicans in control of both houses, this is an opportune time. But Democrats want to preserve union jobs, and some Republicans oppose any expansion of sales. Also, Corbett is making this pitch when his popularity is at a two-year low. While privatization enjoys public support, it has to share the legislative agenda with pension reform, transportation funding and other big-ticket items in Corbett’s upcoming budget address.
Unlike other dilemmas, however, liquor privatization isn’t a debt problem — it’s a money-maker. Legislators have a chance to simplify the lives of their constituents, raise millions of dollars for schools and give this part of the retail economy a shot of adrenaline.
We’ve been here before. Anyone familiar with Pennsylvania’s holdout mentality toward liquor sales knows not to get too antsy about change. Like others before him, Corbett has uncorked a decades-old vintage and found the contents in its prime.
Even for those in the Legislature who don’t drink, it’s time to let others do so without the hindrance of a government dictating where they can buy, what and for how much. It’s time.”
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