Wine grocery store

Hey Harrisburg! It’s time to let us buy booze in the grocery aisles (opinion)

A bill that would privatize our state-controlled system and allow wine in grocery stores and beer and liquor to be sold in the same place passed the House last week. It heads to the Senate, and then the Governor.

And it’s time to pass it.

Why? Pennsylvania’s “blue laws,” the rules that put beer at bottle shops and distributors, and wine and liquor in “state stores,” came to be in 1933. The U.S. had just reversed prohibition, much to the dismay of Republican Governor Gifford Pinchot — of whom the state Treasurer once said, “Every Sunday the governor tries to make some change in the universe where the Lord hasn’t done it right.”

And our laws around liquor exist precisely to make buying alcohol as “inconvenient and expensive as possible.”

In some 37 other states, you can live the dream of buying a bottle of Charles Shaw wine at Trader Joe’s. The taste might not even eclipse Franzia levels, but it costs around $3 or less (Two-Buck Chuck!) and it’s right there. Right freaking there. Available for purchase next to the yams or steak or whatever else you’re cooking for dinner that night.

But not in Pennsylvania! We join Utah as the lone states where the government has total control over liquor stores, with 16 other states having varying levels of much-lesser control and the other 32 taking the hands-off-my-lager approach.

Seems like common sense, right? But if it passes through the Senate, Wolf has vowed to kill it with a veto.

This is the second time in three years the House has passed liquor privatization, but momentum really isn’t picking up because of Wolf and the Democratic party’s opposition — not one House Democrat (including Philly’s 23 House Dems) voted in favor of the bill. We’ll basically still be living in 1933 because Wolf and the Democrats can’t do something 61 percent of Pennsylvanians want (including 54 percent of their own party members) because the Republicans want it more and wanted it first.

And why? Why is this so hard? After 82 years of living in this bizarre way, the bill’s opponents are still citing job and public health concerns. But neither argument carries enough weight.

Though it’s true Pennsylvania ranks lower than most of the 32 private states in alcohol-related deaths, there’s not much of a correlation between state-controlled liquor and alcohol related deaths (a median of 29.1 annual deaths per 100,000 accounting for population for private states and 28.1 for Utah, Pennsylvania and the 16 with some some state control, according to the most recent CDC data). A geographical correlation to alcohol-related deaths is much stronger, with drinking deaths happening with significantly greater frequency in the West and South than the Northeast. Four of the five states with the lowest number of alcohol-related deaths per 100,000 annually are nearby states (New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut) with private liquor laws.

The jobs argument amounts to about 5,000 mostly union Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board employees (2,300 full-time) who would be out of work when state liquor stores close. The pain of job loss can never be diminished, but state lawmakers have been actively fighting for these jobs while passively letting nearly 20,000 teaching jobs disappear the last few years. And if the bill passes, private employers would be given tax credits for hiring former Liquor Control Board employees.

This year, the battle over privatization has also turned budgetary. Wolf and other Democrats have been touting the $500 million plus in annual profit realized by the Liquor Control Board (more than 80 percent coming from taxes) and saying they could “modernize” it to bring in more cash. Republicans say privatization will lead to a one-time gain of up to $1 billion and larger or equal annual tax revenues compared to what the current system brings in.

Let’s stop with all the money talk right there, though.

Privatization is about convenience. A few million (hell, an extra $50 million annually from alcohol) won’t solve Pennsylvania’s horrific budget crisis. Privatizing liquor makes life easier for us and the cost would be negligible at worst. Leave it at that.

We don’t want to drive to New Jersey to find a better selection of alcohol. We don’t want to walk another mile to get a liter of Jack D for the party. We don’t want to wait in long lines at liquor stores forced to serve tons more people because Pennsylvania has about 59 percent fewer wine and spirits stores than would be expected if our state was privatized, according to a 2012 UPenn study by Katja Seim and Joel Waldfogel.

The irony of the Democratic opposition in Philadelphia is that urban, mostly Democratic areas stand to benefit the most from liquor privatization. As Plan Philly’s Jon Geeting pointed out in 2013, these heavily-populated districts would especially see better selection of spirits and more stores. The areas that might suffer from a lack of liquor availability? That’d be the rural districts mostly represented by Republicans.

It’s really not that hard to understand, though the largely Democratic lawmakers who oppose it apparently think the sight of gin a few aisles down from beer will blow our simpleton minds. AM I SUPPOSED TO MIX THE TANQUERAY WITH THE MICHELOB?

Translation: Republicans proposed and support this bill, so Democrats can’t. And if Democrats or Republicans come up with a favorable modernization bill, the opposite party will probably kill it, as has happened before. This liquor privatization pissing match illustrates the same type of nonsensical political in-fighting that led to a stalled bill over the prohibition of eating pets for dinner (Good Lord: We’re living in a state where you can eat “chicken Corgi bleu” with “baked po-Terrier” but can’t wash it down with wine bought from a grocery store).

These problems are small compared to many others, but petty, partisan disagreements on slam-dunk issues lead to the belief our lawmakers won’t be able to improve our state on issues that really matter.

This shouldn’t be hard, guys. Don’t screw it up, and the first bottle of Two-Buck-Chuck is on us.

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