Your pinot is on aisle 9

    Will you ever get to buy your merlot at the supermarket in Pennsylvania?

    In search of an answer, I trekked to Harrisburg today to witness the first of many public hearings on the proposal to end the state store monopoly and privatize liquor sales in the commonwealth.

    The hearing’s only witnesses were the bill’s sponsor, Mike Turzai and his general counsel, Jim Mann. Turzai, an Allegheny County Republican is just a shade paler than John Boehner, and pretty intense, at least on this subject.

    He’s majority leader of the state house, and this appears to be his signature cause.

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    I was reminded of two things about legislative hearings: One, the discussion is always a mixture of smart, public-spirited debate and shameless demagoguery. And two, it’s always worth going over the details, because that’s where the devil lies.

    Here a few things I learned and some questions raised by this exercise in democracy:

    • Turzai’s proposal would double the number retail wine and liquor outlets in the state from 621 to 1,250. But it would hardly change the number of stores in Philadelphia. There are 59 state stores in the city. Under his legislation, the number of private outlets would be limited to 60. This seems to be because upstate folks regard us as rowdy miscreants who can’t be trusted with too much firewater, and because community leaders and elected officials here who are sick of nuisance bars fear new liquor stores around the corner.

    • We would see wine and spirits in at least some grocery stores. Turzai’s plan aims to give 750 of the licenses to bigger stores, like supermarkets and even Wal-Mart’s.

    • You won’t be buying a six pack of Corona at the Pathmark. Turzai’s bill leaves the rules on beer sales in Pennsylvania unchanged.

    • Even after the new licenses are granted, Pennsylvania will have fewer liquor outlets per capita than the national average. Turzai’s bill limits the number of licenses, he says, to strike a “balance” between convenience and something I have trouble recalling. I must note that by issuing fewer licenses than the market will bear, the state will make a killing from auctioning the licenses to the highest bidder, in effect awarding state-charted monopolies to those ready to hand the crown enough bags of gold.

    • There was a rousing argument that was almost impossible to follow over whether prices will be better without the state stores. Under Turzai’s bill, the state store markup disappears, along with the 18% Johnstown Flood tax (great piece of history, if you don’t know it). Replacing it would be a per-gallon tax on the wine and booze. Several legislators cited chardonnays that would cost more or less under one proposal or the other. I hope to try and get to the bottom of this with more time and fewer finger-wagging lawmakers.

    This debate will heat up this fall, and, I have no idea where it ends up. It’s conventional wisdom that nobody much likes the state store system, but governors and lawmakers have tried to kill it many times in the past without success. Stay tuned.

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