End in Sight for Pennsylvania’s State-Run Liquor Stores

Could it finally happen? After decades of hemming, hawing, and growing public anger over Pennsylvania’s outdated regulations, change may finally be in the cards for the Keystone State. This month, the House will very likely take up a bill sponsored by Rep. Turzai that would overhaul rules for liquor, wine, and beer. HB11 would:

  • Sell the state-owned stores and issue 1,600 retail licenses.
  • Allow beer distributors to sell in any combination of six-packs (currently they must sell at least a case).
  • Eliminate the “Johnstown Flood Tax,” which has been imposing an 18 percent tax on liquor sold in PA since 1936. The bill would replace the current structure with a per gallon sold tax rate. Somewhere in the range of $8.25 to $9 for wine and $11 to $12 per gallon for spirits.
  • Based on a study conducted for the Corbett administration, the new rules would bring the state $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion in revenue that would go towards the state’s roads and bridges.

Unfortunately, even if this proposal is approved, the changes would happen at a virtual snail’s pace — and the plan maintains arbitrary limits on who can sell alcohol. It simply doesn’t go far enough; not by a long shot. As noted by Keystone Politics, of the s1,600 licenses, the first 1,060 will be offered to beer distributors first. It will take five years to fully close down all of the state-run stores, and it will be another 10 years before supermarkets could get into the business of selling alcohol.

As I’ve written before, the main reason to abolish the government-run liquor stores is because it is not the job of government to sell alcohol. Of course, there are many practical reasons to privatize the system including increased sales (from all the Pennsylvanians not jumping the border to buy their booze) and would increase availability for consumers of alcohol in Pennsylvania who are currently one of the worst-served markets in the nation. A study prepared by the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based public policy group, demonstrated the abject failure of the state’s liquor regulations. Selection in the state stores, hours, and locations leave much to be desired. Putting the matter in particularly stark terms, the study shows that ratio of stores per population in Pennsylvania is far below the national average.

While hopes of the issue being taken up this week were dashed on Wednesday — the day a vote was scheduled to take place — the House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin assured reporters that the privatization bill was not dead. “We believe the votes are going to be there,” he said and explained that the bill was delayed by the 300 amendments filed to the proposal and budget meetings that required Turzai’s attention.

If this sorry excuse for a privatization plan can’t make it through the legislature, it’s likely that Pennsylvanians are going to have to keep on waiting for another few decades for a proper proposal to truly ditch government-run alcohol sales.