A Tale of Two Agencies

It is neither the “best of times” nor the “worst of times” in Pennsylvania, yet there is “A Tale of Two Agencies” when it comes to the proper role for government boards and commissions.

By any logical definition, legislatively created bodies are designed to act as simple handmaidens of the General Assembly, established to do the bidding of elected state officials. Yet, given enough time and resources, some agencies take on a life of their own and begin to act as though they are the masters rather than the servants.

Consider two well-established state agencies, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (LCB) and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC).

Originally created in 1933 at the end of Prohibition to regulate the flow of “demon rum” and other spirits over the lips of Pennsylvanians, the LCB plays the role of both seller of booze and revenue generator for the state. It annually returns a few hundred million into the state’s coffers while irritating consumers with higher prices and restricted choices.

Attempts to sell the government monopoly to private interests have failed in the past. The strange bedfellows of labor unions, who control jobs at the LCB, and teetotalers, who hold on to the unfounded belief that a government monopoly of liquor reduces the negative effects of alcohol, have collectively defeated privatization efforts in the past.

Governor Dick Thornburgh missed privatizing the LCB by a handful of votes over 20 years ago. Today, however, state Sen. Rob Wonderling (R- Montgomery County) thinks the time is right to try again. Wonderling wants to put the system into private hands, with the resulting revenue to be used to help diminish continual increases in state spending.

What does the LCB have to say about the legislative effort to abolish it? Not much.

In fact, when queried recently, the LCB’s response was a textbook example of how every government agencies should respond to such legislative proposals:

“The public policy decision regarding government’s appropriate role in the sale of wine and spirits in Pennsylvania is a matter for our elected public-policy makers to decide…. Our job at the LCB is not to spend our time and energy and resources trying to sway the debate … we may have an impact on the public policy debate – but it will be through the facts of our performance, not our opinions.”

Contrast that statement to the Turnpike Commission’s advertising and lobbying campaign to not only retain control of the existing 530-mile road from Scranton to King of Prussia to the Ohio state line, but to make Interstate-80 across the north-central region of the state a toll road, too.

The 70-year-old PTC has spent over $300,000 thus far in a radio image campaign and hired a bevy of lobbyists to both fend off attempts to lease the turnpike and clear the way for the tolling of I-80. More than $1 million has been spent lobbying to defeat Governor Rendell’s lease proposal and expand the PTC’s fiefdom.

Fortunately, the irony of the LCB and PTC’s responses was not lost on state Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre County), who, after reading the LCB statement, reminded Turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier that “It is your job to run the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to the best of its ability. It is not your job to spend time, resources and energy trying to sway the debate about the future of the turnpike.”

Corman went on to suggest to Brimmeier that the PTC should adopt a policy underlining the fact it is “a General Assembly created agency and not a lobbying entity.” Corman has yet to hear back from Brimmeier or the PTC.

Privatizing the Liquor Control Board and leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike would be major steps toward restoring the proper role of government in our Commonwealth. The abolition of such antiquated agencies would reduce the size of government and help alleviate the need for higher taxes or new tolls on Pennsylvanians.

Although both proposals face tough legislative battles ahead, one opponent that taxpayers and our elected officials should not have to fight is a rogue state agency expending taxpayer and toll-payer money to thwart citizen’s best interests.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org) in Harrisburg.