If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.Most Pennsylvanians, as well as almost anyone in the United States, know about Pennsylvania’s ridiculous liquor laws. I face the struggle all the time as a wine writer, as well as working at a local winery in PA. The limits, rules, and taxes we face are mind-boggling. As a wine writer, it’s difficult for me to get samples because it wasn’t until recently that any alcohol could be shipped to private consumers in PA. Most wineries aren’t aware that the law has changed in that respect and some could ship to PA now, but still have to jump through absurd hoops, not to mention pay outrageous taxes. Hence why most of the wine on my weekly roundups are purchased out of my own pocket and I travel several hours in multiple directions just to try wine from East Coast wineries (let alone any from other parts of the country and world).
The current state store system was created in 1933, right at the end of the Prohibition era, by then-Gov. Gifford Pinchot, who said the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s (PLCB) mission was to make liquor sales “as inconvenient and expensive as possible.” I think he achieved his goal.
Pennsylvania remains one of just two states with complete government control over the sale and distribution of liquor, wine and spirits. Given its monopoly power, it’s no wonder the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) is notorious for corruption and waste. A recent federal grand jury investigation of PLCB bigwigs who took all-expense-paid trips to Florida and California can attest to that.
Government-controlled liquor is no cash cow for the state. The PLCB generates revenue by marking up prices on the alcohol it sells and by collecting taxes. Of the $534 million transferred to the state Treasury in 2014, a whopping 85 percent was simply tax revenue. In other words, the vast majority of the “profit” from state liquor stores would continue uninterrupted with private operators and would even grow as entrepreneurs open new, taxpaying businesses.
Recently a bill passed in the Pennsylvania Senate to “rewrite” some of Pennsylvania’s outdated and archaic liquor laws. By no means is it a plan for privatization or anything like that. It’s not reform in any sense of the word.
If the Republican-controlled House goes along, this bill would:
• Allow restaurants and grocery stores that currently sell beer to also sell up to four bottles of wine per customer. State stores, which would continue to offer wine, would remain the only place where customers could purchase whiskey, vodka, gin, liqueurs and other spirits. Nothing would change for beer distributors.
• Remove most restrictions on the hours, holidays and Sunday operations of state stores. It also would allow wineries to ship directly to consumers.
• Casinos would be able to sell alcohol 24 hours a day, provided they buy new, $1 million licenses.
Then there is a host of oddities aimed at appeasing various special interest groups. Bed and breakfasts could provide one bottle of wine to guests when they check in. Breweries would be able to participate in farmers’ markets. Hotels and restaurants could start selling alcohol at 7 a.m. on Groundhog Day.
The fact that state law addresses the hours when alcohol can be sold on a faux holiday honoring a rodent is the very definition of absurd — an adjective that fits the entire bill.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Curt Sonney, R-Erie, has pursued direct-shipping legislation for several years to no avail. This year is no different, as his House Bill 189 would allow any winery to obtain a permit to ship any quantify of wine straight to the customer.
Pennsylvania would still charge the 18 percent liquor tax and the 6 percent sales tax on shipped wine under Sonney’s legislation. That raises some concerns, considering fine wine can easily cost as much as $100 a bottle. Even the taxes on a $20 bottle of wine can be double that of another state, said Steve Gross, vice president of state relations at the Wine Institute, an advocacy and policy group representing the wine industry in California.
Tom Wark, executive director of the American Wine Consumer Coalition in Washington, D.C., sees Pennsylvania’s exorbitant taxes as a competitive barrier, but cited another issue: Sonney’s still bill doesn’t address the retail end of shipping.
And that means no shopping from Amazon or Total Wine, a restriction that Wark said effectively bans the shipping of imported products sold by retailers. It also closes the door on wine-of-the-month clubs and collectible and rare wines sold at auction houses, and even limits the choice of kosher wines, he said. Something I have frustratingly experienced first hand. There are so many wines out there that I want to experience, but have no way of getting my hands on them. The only options I have are choosing from the PLCB state store’s limited selection or having wine shipped from very limited sources that most of the time don’t have the wine I want.
It’s time to move out of the Prohibition era, Pennsylvania, and into the 21st Century. Considering the PLCB is losing money instead of making it, regardless of how much re-branding and redesigning of their stores they attempt to do, the PLCB is no longer a viable option. Ultimately, the best scenario would be privatization, but for now…loosening the tight belt would help the state as well as consumers and retail businesses. If it’s worked for the other 48 states, doesn’t it make sense it would work for us?