Corbett’s liquor plan is hypocritical to small businesses and educators

The gov­ernor has made no secret of his ob­ject­ive to privat­ize more and more of the com­mon­wealth’s pub­lic as­sets. Even ef­fi­ciently op­er­ated as­sets that are thriv­ing rev­en­ue gen­er­at­ors aren’t safe from his ill-ad­vised pro­pos­als, most re­cently to privat­ize li­quor sales.

On many oc­ca­sions, the gov­ernor has claimed to be a cham­pi­on of Pennsylvania’s small, fam­ily-owned busi­nesses, but the plan he and his privat­iz­a­tion al­lies have pro­moted to over­haul the cur­rent sys­tem threatens those very busi­nesses.

Many of the state’s beer dis­trib­ut­ors have cri­ti­cized Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan be­cause they would be put at a com­pet­it­ive dis­ad­vant­age against big box re­tail­ers like Wal-Mart. Un­der the Corbett plan, a li­cense to ex­pand in­to wine and spir­it sales would cost beer dis­trib­ut­ors $150,000, while gi­ant re­tail com­pet­it­ors with enorm­ous profit mar­gins would only pay $25,000 to $35,000 — small change for Wal-Mart or Tar­get.

Fur­ther al­loc­at­ing funds from li­quor li­cense sales for edu­ca­tion may seem gen­er­ous and even polit­ic­ally savvy, but Pennsylvani­ans re­cog­nize that $1 bil­lion over four years fails to off­set the two con­sec­ut­ive bil­lion-dol­lar cuts to edu­ca­tion in Corbett’s budgets. Re­mem­ber, the gov­ernor was crit­ic­al of what he labeled as a “one-time ear­mark” of fed­er­al stim­u­lus funds for edu­ca­tion, but his pro­pos­al is ex­actly that: a one-time in­jec­tion of cash. Ty­ing the pro­lif­er­a­tion of al­co­hol sales to short-term edu­ca­tion fund­ing is not only poor fisc­al plan­ning, but also ir­re­spons­ible and dan­ger­ous.

There are oth­er prob­lems with the gov­ernor’s plan. Cur­rently, every res­id­ent has reas­on­able ac­cess to a wine and spir­its store; there is at least one in every county. Ex­per­i­ence in oth­er states has shown that private op­er­at­ors loc­ate where the mar­ket is, which means the li­quor se­lec­tion in rur­al areas will de­cline, as was the case in West Vir­gin­ia when it privat­ized. This has sparked op­pos­i­tion from rur­al law­makers, in­clud­ing the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent pro tem­pore of the Pennsylvania Sen­ate.

The com­mon­wealth also would lose its bulk pur­chas­ing power, which is used to lever­age lower whole­sale prices; this will drive con­sumer prices up. Evid­ence from oth­er states also points to skyrock­et­ing costs to com­bat so­cial ills as­so­ci­ated with in­creased al­co­hol con­sump­tion, like law-en­force­ment costs re­lated to vi­ol­ence, burg­lary, van­dal­ism, drunk driv­ing, teen preg­nancy and ad­dic­tion.

I be­lieve im­prov­ing the cus­tom­er ex­per­i­ence should be the ob­ject­ive — and there is an easi­er way of meet­ing that ob­ject­ive without sac­ri­fi­cing mil­lions of dol­lars in an­nu­al rev­en­ue to state cof­fers, 3,500 fam­ily-sus­tain­ing jobs or the prosper­ity of Pennsylvania’s fam­ily-owned beer dis­trib­ut­ors. Mod­ern­iz­a­tion.

The mod­ern­iz­a­tion plan would of­fer state stores the flex­ib­il­ity to ex­tend Sunday hours and of­fer con­sumers deep­er dis­counts and wider product se­lec­tions. Some of these ini­ti­at­ives already have been in­tro­duced in the state House and have garnered bi­par­tis­an sup­port. And ac­cord­ing to the PLCB, these op­tions alone would gen­er­ate an es­tim­ated $35 mil­lion in the first year of im­ple­ment­a­tion. 

Con­sumers don’t want high­er prices and smal­ler se­lec­tions. Pennsylvani­ans want in­creased con­veni­ence and reas­on­able prices. Quick ac­tion on the mod­ern­iz­a­tion plan would give con­sumers both, without jeop­ard­iz­ing jobs or fam­ily busi­nesses. ••

State Rep. Ed Neilson rep­res­ents the 169th Le­gis­lat­ive Dis­trict.

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