Pennsylvania’s drinks reform changes too little

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The Keystone State’s Legislature could have gone big. Instead, it settled for a bill that is about as potent as near beer. Only the politicians are likely to be satisfied.

Gov. Tom Wolf yesterday signed the bill previously passed by both chambers of the Legislature. Lawmakers and media are ballyhooing the statute. House Speaker Mike Turzai declared:

We are, in fact, going to move Pennsylvania into the 21st century … It is an important, historic step and this is a product that is shared by all of us.” Various media outlets have called the reforms “sweeping” and “historic,” said “buying alcohol may get a whole lot easier.

Please.

The compromise legislation does end a couple of the most ridiculous aspects of the Pennsylvania drinks system. The prohibition on Sunday sales will end. Casinos will be able to sell beer, spirits and wine 24 hours per day.

Otherwise, there’s little to cheer. The new law mostly tinkers at the edges of the state-dominated system.

  • Those who want to purchase distilled spirits will still need to go to the crummy state liquor stores—or drive into neighboring states to get a better selection and prices.
  • Consumers will be permitted to order wine from out-of-state wineries. However, they will continue to be prevented from getting wine from wine clubs or retail shops in other states (heaven forbid the state government’s liquor shops be forced to compete with outside retailers).
  • The new law will allow grocery stores to carry wine—but only if they already have a beer sales license. Consumers may purchase no more than four bottles at a time. So if you are having a party, you’re stuck going back to the state liquor store. Bed and breakfasts now may give guests a bottle of wine – only one – when they stay.
  • Gas stations that want to sell drinks have to retain a separate shopfront and ring up sales on a separate cash register.

In short, state-run beverage stores will continue to be the centerpiece of the retail drinks system.

Just last year, there was a serious movement to abolish the government-run alcohol system. House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, declared at the time: “It is time to get government out of the alcohol business once and for all and move Pennsylvania into the 21st century.” He moved legislation to privatize the system. Gov. Wolf killed it last summer, in a sop to the 3,500 unionized state beverage store employees, whose jobs apparently mean more than the good of Pennsylvania’s 9 million or so adult consumers.

Drinks reform legislation tends to come along only once in a very great while. So it’s a pity that Pennsylvania’s elected officials enacted legislation that continues the archaic, expensive, consumer-unfriendly drinks system.

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