LCB fights to save State Stores

Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board is under siege but fighting back. We know because it’s doubling the size of its fearsome robot army.

Facing threats of privatization in Harrisburg, the booze ministry recently announced plans to deploy 24 more of its wine-selling machines to serve the state’s Walmarts. These Breathalyzer-equipped Rube Goldberg devices are an apt symbol of the LCB itself: a complicated, expensive, and largely unsuccessful attempt to reinvent the liquor store.

But to hear LCB Chairman Patrick J. “P.J.” Stapleton III tell it, the Prohibition-era system would work beautifully if it weren’t for all these dumb laws. He recently urged legislators to loosen restrictions on the agency’s personnel decisions, pricing, and store hours — in other words, to help the LCB strive for a rough facsimile of private-sector efficiency and responsiveness.

Of course, the whole problem is that a bureaucrat has to ask politicians for this favor.

Also joining the fray is the LCB workforce’s able representative, Wendell W. Young IV. In a meeting with the Editorial Board last week, Young, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, offered a brain-scrambling series of arguments to support the theory that the state is the best of all possible liquor purveyors.

Although an independent poll found that two-thirds of Pennsylvanians would support selling off the liquor system, Young claimed that 86 percent of State Store customers are satisfied with their experience. How did the union arrive at this impressive statistic? By paying for its own poll and restricting it to regular State Store patrons — thus excluding anyone who has decided to give up and shop in New Jersey.

Young argued that privatization is being pushed not by the public, but by a conspiracy of effete “wine snobs,” conservative think tankers, and, above all, “Big Alcohol.” At the same time, he crowed about the LCB’s purchasing power — which derives from the fact that it’s America’s biggest alcohol buyer.

The union also maintains that much of the liquor and wine business would be absorbed by chain stores that wouldn’t hire a single additional employee — but that overhead and prices would nevertheless skyrocket.

And Young suggested that government control can be credited with the state’s low rates of drinking and deaths from alcohol-related disease. That not only contradicts his insistence that the system does nothing to discourage consumers. It also asks us to ignore the myriad demographic and other variables that affect such statistics — as well as Pennsylvania’s above-average rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

Young deserves credit for modesty, though: He says it won’t be the union that defeats privatization. What will? “The truth.”