Liberals and Conservatives Agree: Let Go of Our Liquor

Note: This commentary first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a version also appeared in the Bucks Intelligencer.

As the partisan divide plays out in Washington, it’s encouraging to see one policy battle in Pennsylvania with support on both sides of the political spectrum. Across the state, voters remain unified in their support of allowing private stores to sell wine and liquor. Unfortunately for consumers, inside the state Capitol, bipartisan unity on this issue has been harder to come by.

Our two organizations — a free-market think tank and a liberal commentary and news site — came together to co-sponsor a comprehensive survey of Pennsylvanians’ attitudes towards our state’s alcohol system. The results reflect continued strong support for common-sense reform that transcends partisan and ideological boundaries.

According to this independent analysis of 1,100 likely voters, 66 percent want to be able to purchase beer, wine and liquor in a variety of private stores — just like citizens in almost every other state. Voters want these changes because they want more and better choices, and because they believe this benefits both our state’s economy and budget.

These results should come as no surprise — public support has long been strong for privatization given our state’s antiquated liquor system. Consumers have seen what privatized systems look like in border states and they’re exporting their dollars to find the prices and selection they want.

Pennsylvania remains one of only two states with a government monopoly controlling the sale of wine and liquor, and its wholesale operation ensures that selection is stunted and slows the availability of new brands. Given its dual mission to enforce alcohol regulations and promote alcohol consumption, it’s no surprise that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is failing consumers.

Indeed, when the liquor board was organized in 1933, Gov. Gifford Pinchot declared the system would “discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible.”

Perhaps there would be partisan disagreement about privatizing the state’s liquor cartel if the late governor’s public health strategy proved correct. But his premise that protectionist, anti-competitive regulations effectively manage the public harm from alcohol abuse has been disproven by Pennsylvania’s pathetic public health rankings.

Pennsylvania consistently ranks near the top of the list of states when it comes to drunk driving, alcohol-related fatalities and binge drinking. While Pinchot failed to restrict consumption in the state, he succeeded in forcing Pennsylvanians to drive farther and pay more for their good cheer.

The inconvenience that state lawmakers have forced consumers to endure is simply not delivering the promised results in public health and safety. It’s no surprise that Pennsylvanians still want to put an end to this Prohibition-era scheme.

Sixty-five percent of voters want the right to purchase beer, wine and liquor in grocery stores and specialty stores. Only 33 percent support half-measures, such as making beer distributors the only retail alcohol sellers.

Two-thirds say they want the government out of the retail business because they want the government to stop spending money on alcohol marketing — a key factor proven to increase underage drinking — and because they believe unwinding the booze cartel would create more varied choices, more jobs and revenue, and opportunities for new businesses large and small.

This survey makes clear that if every state lawmaker voted according to the wishes of his or her district, a bill liberalizing Pennsylvania’s retail alcohol market would pass easily. Yet too many lawmakers are protecting vocal vested interests despite the views of their constituents and voters.

In fact, 55 percent of voters — including clear majorities of Democrats (54 percent), Republicans (70 percent) and independents (70 percent) — say they’d be more likely to vote for an elected official who unwinds the alcohol cartels than one who stands with the entrenched incumbents.

It’s time for the public’s voice to be heard. Pennsylvanians believe that government should regulate — not sell — wine and spirits. They understand that ending Pennsylvania’s Prohibition-era policies likely would reduce prices, improve convenience, reduce the purchase of alcohol across state lines and create more jobs. They also understand that it would not lead to greater social ills.

As our survey reveals, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, union members and non-union members all agree — the government booze business is failing consumers. It’s time to put aside our differences and win one for the people of Pennsylvania.

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Jon Geeting is editor of Keystone Politics, a liberal-leaning news site that has been covering Pennsylvania politics since 2004. Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.