Big changes sometimes demand first steps, but Pennsylvania has now found its footing in the long climb out of the Prohibition era, with a new law that begins the process of ending our irrational state liquor monopoly.
For years I led the fight to get Pennsylvania out of the liquor business. Last week after three previous House votes for full privatization, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill that allows the sale of wine in grocery stores, expanded sales in hotels and eating establishments, and allows for wine lovers to order direct shipments to their homes.
Last year, Wolf vetoed a full privatization bill after it passed both houses. This latest, a compromise, passed the house 157-31, and the governor’s signature marks progress in moving us into the new century.
It marks progress, too, for our state budget. The governor’s budget office estimates the new law will add at least $150 million annually to state revenues.
Ideally, spirits will follow wine onto the grocers’ shelves, but legislative victories are often incremental. Nobody knows that better than Pennsylvanians who have to deal every day with the legacies of special interests deeply invested in the status quo.
Now, with wine moving from state stores onto grocery shelves, the convenience will prove irresistible. When privatization first broke through the legislative barricades three years ago, opponents used apocalyptic rhetoric that would have left listeners with the notion that alcohol sold by the state is less intoxicating.
Overblown language never lasts. Soon enough, as the marketplace overtakes state bureaucracy, citizens will see the common sense in allowing private liquor sales.
This idea will likely take root in many of the rural counties, where many communities are saddled with revenue-losing state stores that are open only a few days a week.
Those of us old enough to recall the state stores of years past are struck by how, in retrospect, they mirror old, Soviet-era stores, with the merchandise tucked away in the back and a mimeographed list of products from which the consumer made a selection and hoped it was in stock.
The open-shelf system now in use is the LCB’s reaction to previous calls for privatization. State stores began to imitate the trappings of the free market, which only served to remind Pennsylvanians that other states had private store shelves stocked the same way, but with better hours and competitive prices.
We need to acknowledge that further beer and liquor privatization means a transition in the labor force, from state to private sector employment. That is why special interests launched such an all-out campaign to stop any progress three years ago. It is also why some compromise was necessary.
My support for this more modest version of my original bill was a vote of faith that once the people of our state see the benefits of grocery store wine sales, and once merchants and restaurateurs are able to generate more revenues, we’ll all be ready for full privatization in coming years.
That would include the ultimate elimination of the added layer of bureaucracy marked by the state’s wholesale system — one that reduces price competition and costs consumers an unnecessary markup. When it comes to retail sales, one middle man is enough, and it ought to be the private sector, not the state.
This bill is not the full privatization we all want, but it’s the first, big victory in the longer battle toward getting the state out of the liquor business. That’s worth toasting.
Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, is speaker of the state House of Representatives and a longtime leader in the effort to privatize liquor sales in Pennsylvania.