Plan to privatize alcohol backed
If you’ve ever groused about having to drive a few unwanted extra miles to pick up wine and beer for a weekend party, then Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposal this week to get Pennsylvania out of the state-run booze business should be welcome news.
The Republican’s plan, made public in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, calls for shutting down Pennsylvania’s 600 state-owned liquor stores and finally putting to bed a system that’s been in place since the heyday of Eliot Ness and his famed Untouchables.
Corbett’s proposal calls for 1,200 wine and spirits licenses to be auctioned off to the highest bidder and for separate licenses to be made available to supermarkets, convenience stores and big-box retailers.
Supermarkets and big-box retailers, such as Walmart, could sell beer and wine and convenience stores could sell beer, giving what Corbett said would be expanded choice and convenience for consumers.
One of Pennsylvania’s great imponderables – and there are many about this confounding state – is its bizarre requirement that consumers buy their wine and spirits in one location and beer in another.
That’s a Prohibition-era relic that benefits no one – with the possible exception of beer distributors who, until recently, have had an iron grip on the sales of suds.
But distributors benefit from the proposal as well. They would be allowed to purchase an enhanced license to sell wine as well as beer.
They’d also be allowed to finally sell beer in six-packs – a godsend for consumers who might want to test drive an individual brew before plunking down for a whole case.
We’ll get the bad news out of the way right away: the 3,500 men and women who work in Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor stores would lose their jobs.
But Corbett’s plan also calls for tax credits for employers who hire displaced workers along with preference in civil service hiring. And the private operators who move into the state will almost certainly need experienced workers to sell booze to thirsty consumers.
And with one eye squarely on the electoral calendar, Corbett has come up with a sure-fire winner for the proceeds of the estimated $1 billion sale of wholesale and retail licenses.
The governor wants to create an educational block grant that would underwrite school safety programs, early education and new science, technology and mathematics programs.
When you’re mostly known as the governor who took the knife to the public schools, such initiatives will only help as Corbett gears up for an expected 2014 re-election bid.
To be sure, Corbett will face the same potent cocktail of opponents – organized labor and social conservatives among them – who helped derail last year’s booze privatization push.
The plan does blunt the criticism from conservatives who fear that a privatized system would lead to an increase in drunken driving arrests and a spike in underage drinking.
The administration’s proposal calls for hefty fines for those who sell to minors and to those who are obviously drunk. It also calls for mandatory minimum license suspensions for repeat offenders.
If lawmakers can get it together to pass Corbett’s plan – and it should be passed – Pennsylvania would finally join the company of states that long ago privatized the sale of alcohol without any of the attendant Sodom and Gomorrah fallout so often cited by opponents.
It’s an oversimplification to say that Republican control of all three chambers should make this plan a lay-up.
But, unlike last year, Corbett is leading from the front, which should provide a clear signal that the governor is serious in his intentions. They should follow suit.