Welcome Back: To Privatize or not to Privatize: Pennsylvania’s Dilemma

By Stephen Suss / Columnist

Nothing is more reminiscent of summer than the smell of barbeque while opening a cold beer with your friends. But Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws can make the price for beer painful, and locating it a difficult task. 

As an out-of-stater in Pennsylvania, it often feels like I’m stepping back into the Prohibition era of “The Great Gatsby” every time I try to buy a six-pack.

In a time where states are legalizing marijuana for recreational use, Pennsylvania is still struggling to catch up with the majority of the country and reform its archaic alcohol laws. Out of the 18 states that still regulate alcoholic beverages — collectively known as Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) states — Pennsylvania has arguably the strictest regulations. With the state running all liquor stores and regulating the licensing of malt beverage distributors, essentially any drink containing a molecule of alcohol is somehow controlled by the state. 

The strictness of these alcohol laws have caused many of the state’s residents to look at the ease of alcoholic beverage sales in other states with envy and, within the past decade, the state has attempted to implement some creative ideas to appease its residents while still maintaining control.

Anyone who had the misfortune of using — or more likely attempting to use — one of the wine kiosks set up in grocery stores several years ago can tell you that this state can come up with some interesting ways to throw away money. 

Proposed in 2009 and putting the state over $1 million in debt, several stores such as Wegman’s voluntarily dropped these malfunctioning kiosks because they were so difficult to use. Issues with the kiosks, including requiring customers to use a breathalyzer and, at times, failing to deposit wine after taking customers’ money, caused the experiment to come to an end in 2011.

This kiosk incident increased criticism of those who still support state control, who argue that the continuation of state regulation will help bridge Pennsylvania’s debt. They argue that sales taxes on alcohol will generate enough money to pay off the debt, and state control is wasting more money than it’s creating. Looking at the money squandered by the kiosk system, it seems the latter group is right.

Against the wishes of many of the unionized liquor store employees, officials are realizing that their constituents are fed up and looking at privatization lustfully. It is clear that Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws were set up with a post-Prohibition mindset and are designed to make the purchase of alcohol as difficult as possible. Many companies, such as Sheetz , have rallied customer support for a bill that would privatize alcohol sales in the state. The bill has already passed the state House of Representatives and is poised to pass in the Senate in the fall.

Earlier this summer, when it became apparent that the privatization movement was gaining momentum,  alcohol distributors began scrambling for solutions to prevent the bill from passing. 

In May, several beer distributors requested that they be able to sell six-packs, rather than the larger 24-beer cases they carry exclusively.  In addition, bar owners were seeking the ability to sell larger cases, rather than the 12-packs or smaller containers or single bottles they are restricted to. The proposal made sense, as there was no reason to have two locations selling the same products in different quantities, and the state looked at private industry as a model for package reform.

However, this proposal was reminiscent of the state’s 2010 reform where grocery stores gained the ability to sell beer. This “reform” was based on the model of sales in privatized states, but also came with Pennsylvania’s own unique stipulations. These laws requiried customers to buy beer from an enclosed area where other groceries weren’t allowed to be brought in, and stated that alcohol wasn’t allowed to enter the store even after purchase.

This incident once again proved that the state has trouble in making alcoholic purchases customer-friendly.

Those still in doubt that full privatization is the way to go should realize that Pennsylvania has been building their reforms on the model of states that have already privatized alcohol sales unsuccessfully. 

At this point, with the many ill-conceived alcohol reforms the state has thrown at residents, it’s clear that we should just go straight to other states’ models — i.e., privatization — because the pleasure of opening a beer with friends on a hot summer day really shouldn’t be this hard.