The PLCB should not pass go
Growing up in Pennsylvania, my family enjoyed playing Monopoly over the holidays. The possibilities were endless, the rules clear and the objective simple — heck, it even had cool Keystone State references. But in the end, there could be only one winner with other players left bankrupt and broken.
Such are the ends of all monopolies — just ask Pennsylvania taxpayers and consumers of wine and spirits, who have played the game since 1933. The PLCB controls the dice, changes the rules as it goes and plays with your money while picking wine winners and liquor losers for a small crop of producers of its choosing. Customers may never pass go, shop elsewhere or even hang a shingle to compete lest they face the dreaded “Go Directly to Jail” card.
Sound like a fun game? Pennsylvanians don’t think so, as credible polling has shown overwhelming majorities support privatization.
But in a desperate move to prove their value, PLCB officials have gone one step further to expand their monopoly. In a recent investigative report, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review uncorked a secretive plot by board officials that siphoned millions in taxpayer money to research, copyright, brand, advertise and market more than 30 “in-house” government wines and spirits to compete directly with private labels for shelf space and consumers.
Unfortunately, shoppers can’t tell the difference, with exotic brand names like TableLeaf, LA MERIKA, Hayes Valley, Las Parcelas and Vinestone filling the shelves. Pennsylvanians are left only to guess “Government Wine” wouldn’t yield much enthusiasm.
But forget for a moment the utterly unexplainable phenomenon of a government agency competing unfairly with private business while using millions of tax dollars to advertise and market these products in secrecy. Forget, too, the violation of public trust that has launched external and internal ethics investigations for numerous violations and disastrous decisions by executive staff that have cost taxpayers millions. In the end, it’s about whether the government has any right being in the alcohol sales business when private industry can do it with more convenience, greater selection and better prices.
True, many argue Pennsylvania’s public safety is at stake with the PLCB providing a service to protect citizens from the social ills surrounding alcohol abuse. It’s a notion quickly dismissed by rigorous academic studies and empirical observation of privatized states with lower rates of alcohol-related fatalities and maladies.
Clearly, Pennsylvanians are crying sour grapes with this costly game and are responding by making up rules of their own — openly breaking the law. Even according to a taxpayer-funded study commissioned by the PLCB, bootlegging through neighboring states is prevalent. In Philadelphia and eight bordering counties, the study revealed nearly half surveyed broke the law. This border bleed cost Pennsylvania nearly $100 million in sales and $40 million in state taxes.
After nearly 80 years of control, the PLCB has produced a monopoly of manipulation, mediocrity, malfeasance and mismanagement. In its wake, we’ve been left with a small cadre of cronies counting their winnings, while the rest of Pennsylvanians, private businesses and consumers lie broken and bankrupted by bootlegging, border bleed and the loss of personal and economic freedoms.
They’ve had their turn, we’ve played their unfair game and now Pennsylvanians are demanding their legislators declare that this out-of-control agency never pass go or collect another $200 again.
Jay D. Ostrich is director of public affairs of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org).