Their View: Can the Pennsylvania LCB be fixed?

The following editorial appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pennsylvania’s behemoth beverage ministry adopted a stiffer ban on gifts to employees last week. Echoing a praiseworthy policy decreed by the new governor, the Liquor Control Board thereby inadvertently drew attention to the fact that it did not forbid all gifts to employees until last week. That’s not an academic matter: Top officials at the agency, which moves some $2 billion worth of wine and liquor a year, have been caught helping themselves to goodies and favors in about as grotesque a manner as you might suspect, right down to a personalized bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue.

But perhaps the agency’s newly sober approach to ethics signals a departure. After all, Gov. Tom Wolf may be determined to abandon his predecessor’s efforts to join 48 other states in turning liquor and wine sales over to the private sector. But could he accomplish his mission to make the LCB work about as well?

Of course not. The discontents of state liquor control are structural, not procedural. Although the executives exposed for accepting gratuities are gone, the LCB is the gift that keeps on taking.

Many of the agency’s inconveniences, inefficiencies, and inanities are of course familiar to the general public, but many more are not. Consider, for example, the cumbersome “special liquor order” process.

Restaurants and other niche buyers can obtain wines and liquors that the state doesn’t sell in its stores or online — currently encompassing about 10 times as many vintages and spirits as are regularly available — via special order by government “wine and spirits specialists.” But every bottling must be specifically approved by the Liquor Control Board so that it can be sold to the government, marked up, and resold to restaurateurs, distributors, and other buyers.

Last month, however, the LCB announced that due to a backlog blamed on a shortage of data entry employees, it would not be able to add products to the special-order catalog for several weeks. While the moratorium was lifted the day after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed it, the approval process has stretched from weeks into months.

With pressing needs for core governmental services such as public education, and with many of the legislature’s ruling Republicans eager to dismantle the LCB, is the new governor really prepared to join the rest of the state’s Democrats in defending this Rube Goldberg bureaucracy?

Speaking of pointless complexity in the service of a straightforward task, the LCB is still paying for its catastrophic attempt to automate wine sales through Breathalyzer-equipped vending contraptions. Having spent more than $1 million on the failed program, the LCB has spent another $300,000 fighting a lawsuit by the Montgomery County-based manufacturer of the wine-droids, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported. The company’s lawyer claims it took an $81 million soaking on the machines before the LCB pulled the plug and forced it out of business.

This decommissioned army of booze-bots remains a compelling metaphor for the LCB itself — a costly, convoluted, and interminable solution to a problem that does not exist.