Opinion

Their View: Privatizing booze sales won’t solve problems

The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News.

Republicans in Harrisburg are up to their tried-and-true strategy of using denial and delusion and calling it responsible government.

Why should we increase taxes, they say, when we can just sell the state’s liquor store system and make a billion dollars?

Gov. Tom Wolf has a plan more anchored in reality. When he presents his state budget this week, he is expected to recommend a series of tax increases (and some reductions) to dig the state out of its estimated $2.3 billion deficit.

The main proponent of privatizing the liquor-system is House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Pittsburgh-area Republican and a vigorous (we could even say fanatical) anti-taxer.

Turzai tried his best to get his “sell the system” bill through the General Assembly last session. The conditions then were more ideal. In Tom Corbett, he had a governor who favored the idea and a state Senate controlled by fellow Republicans.

But, the Senate Republicans balked and his bill died in committee in that chamber. The bill was opposed by Democratic legislators, the liquor-store clerks’ union, as well as beer distributors who feared that they would lose their lucrative monopoly on beer-by-the-case sales to supermarkets.

Turzai is back with a slightly different version of the bill this year. It has already cleared the House Liquor Control Committee and could pass the House within the next few weeks. Still, there are Republicans in the Senate who remain cool to the idea, and Wolf has promised to veto the bill if it reaches his desk. Wolf has said that he would prefer to improve the system rather than sell it.

We won’t go into the pros and cons of privatizing liquor sales — or of Wolf’s ideas about revamping the system.

The point is that if it came to pass it would be an asset sale. As much revenue as it may raise, an asset sale is a one and done. You can’t sell the asset twice.

Even if it did raise $1 billion — and that figure is in dispute — and the “profit” could be used to help ease the state’s large deficit, that $1 billion would be gone in a year. And we would be left with a $1 billion hole in the next budget.

This is the kind of gimmickry that gives bond-rating agencies heartburn because it does nothing to address Pennsylvania government’s fundamental problem: Its expenses exceed its tax revenue.

That remains true even after several slash-and-burn budgets under Gov. Tom Corbett, where he cut education and human services subsidies to local governments and slashed the operating budgets of many state departments.

When that string ran out, the governor and the Republican-controlled legislature resorted to other gimmicks to “balance” the budget, including stripping the assets of programs to help technology and job creation. That tactic, too, was a one and done.

And that is a big reason the state faces such a huge deficit today. By ignoring the fundamental problem, we have only made it worse. Turzai’s plan is more of the same.

A segment of Republicans in Harrisburg is desperate — desperate to avoid any plan that includes new taxes. We hope responsible leaders in both parties don’t go for Turzai’s dubious scheme as a way to solve our budget problems. It will only make it worse.

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