Karen Heller: A tall, cool glass of context

With hard times all around us, we're fixated on soda and suds.

At the Berkeley campus of the University of California, students were angry Thursday about planned budget cuts. Around here, the anger has centered on beer labeling and a soda tax.

Time for some perspective.

California is grappling with a $20 billion shortfall, forcing a drastic reduction in funding higher education. Arizona, reeling from the housing crisis, projects a 30 percent gap between state expenditures and revenues. New York is governed by chaos, mostly because nobody's governing, and faces the possibility of having a third governor in a single term.

Pennsylvania? We're busy battling about beer and soda, showing we have our priorities straight.

This month's Great Beer Raid, an event that history books are sure to memorialize, involved a dozen Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement officers storming three Philadelphia bars to check if their beer was properly registered. On March 5, officers confiscated 317 bottles of beer, 72 of which have since been returned. Much of the confusion lay in the intricate naming of craft and imported beers, mistakes - not crimes - largely committed by distributors.

The suds SWAT team constituted two-thirds of the Philadelphia enforcement branch, and a tenth of the state's entire force. The officers spent four hours scouring the beer, based on - I want to stress this - a single anonymous complaint.

The Daily News branded the Liquor Enforcement Officers "Keystone Kops," but that's backward. The officers were doing their jobs; the Philadelphia branch has conducted only four registration raids in two years. The real issue is the shallow criteria for action. Imagine any other department of state or local government acting this dramatically and with so much manpower when prompted by one person complaining anonymously.

Now think about this: Last month, health officials finally shut down the bloody West Philadelphia abortion clinic of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, despite multiple complaints and lawsuits that date back - and I can't stress this enough - 30 years. Women's-health advocates had suspicions of inferior and botched procedures at Gosnell's Women's Medical Society since 1988, but no decisive action could be taken without patients, many of them poor and scared, testifying in Harrisburg.

If Gosnell's clinic had been a bar serving improperly registered beer, or the Capitol cafeteria battling mouse waste, authorities might have raided the place decades ago.

But the commonwealth has its priorities.

After the synchronized bar visits, Liquor Control Enforcement officers raided a distributor, prompting lawmakers in both chambers of the legislature to call for a hearing next month on enforcement protocol.

"This is not our highest priority; it's like a trooper on the road giving traffic tickets. But someone still has to do it," said Liquor Control Enforcement director Maj. John Lutz, who manages 104 officers and 21 supervisors. He doesn't know who filed the original complaint. "Many of our complaints - a huge percentage - come from other licensees. This industry is almost entirely self-policing."

Liquor-law enforcement was transferred to state police in 1987, a superior year for California cabernets following a dismal one for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board: 1986 was marked by corruption, inefficiency, and threatened extinction, Gov. Dick Thornburgh's parting gift.

Today, beverage distributors are in a beer brawl, up in arms about proposed legislation permitting corner stores and more groceries to sell six-packs.

In Philadelphia, folks are crying in their sugary beverages about Mayor Nutter's proposed 2-cents-an-ounce tax, which is drawing lobbyists like locusts screaming about the horror of lost jobs and shuttered businesses even though diet drinks would be exempt. If Council members don't like the sugar tax and loathe the proposed trash fee, it would be nice if they came up with lucrative alternatives to fill the city's $150 million budget gap.

Again, some perspective. I know, we don't do perspective, but try.

Last week, Kansas City's school superintendent suggested closing half the schools and laying off a quarter of the employees. Detroit plans to convert a quarter of the city's abandoned blocks back into farmland, returning to the days of Fort Pontchartrain.

Phoenix, with a $241 million shortfall, considers laying off 1,400 city workers and imposes a 2 percent tax on all groceries - far more punitive than one on sugary drinks.

In a bad time for almost everyone, carping about beer sales and soda tax falls flat. Pennsylvanians tend to believe things are far worse here than anywhere else in the nation, but when you gain perspective, you see that's nonsense.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com