Commentary: Outdated liquor laws are a hangover from Prohibition


HOW'S THIS for a head-scratcher: Apparently, out-of-state politicians and activists can be trusted to drink responsibly, but your average Philadelphian can't.

For years, our state has endured some of the nation's most needlessly restrictive alcohol regulations, yet well-connected visitors to the Democratic National Convention next week will get special exceptions. State legislators in Harrisburg have implemented temporary "national event permits" for the duration of the convention, allowing select Philadelphia venues to sell alcohol later than 2 a.m., provide happy hour specials, and purchase their stock outside of state stores.

This is a fine example of government hypocrisy and should concern to every Pennsylvanian. It's just the latest reminder our outdated liquor laws are vestiges from the bygone era of the Untouchables. Reforming - or better yet, repealing - these laws is long overdue.

Many of these regulations come from the adoption of the 21st Amendment in 1933, which gave states power to enact laws concerning alcohol production, usage and distribution. It even permitted states to create their own monopolies over alcohol distribution-something that would be verboten in most other industries.

We have Gov. Gifford Pinchot to thank for what happened next. In the aftermath of Prohibition, he called for state laws that would "discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible." This resulted in the creation of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which governs most state alcoholic beverage policy.

This state board is largely responsible for many of the restrictions Pennsylvanians endure on a daily basis. Pennsylvania bars and restaurants seeking a liquor license must satisfy a "quota system," which permits only one retail liquor license for every 3,000 county residents and can cost at least $30,000 at the lower range. Anyone seeking to purchase alcohol - whether you're an individual preparing for a party or a bar stocking up for your customers - must purchase the stuff at PLCB-run stores, for the time being.

Then there are the taxes and fees. Anyone buying wine and liquor pays a number of special taxes, including a 30 percent markup and other handling fees imposed by the PLCB. Speaking of Prohibition-era holdovers, we also pay what's called the Johnstown Flood emergency tax. Passed in 1936 and increased in 1968, this 18 percent tax on alcoholic beverages was intended to be a source of temporary relief for reconstruction after the momentous flood, but, like so many other "temporary" taxes, it has lasted far longer than a hangover.

Although doing little to reduce alcohol consumption, these laws raise our tax burden and costs, causing some to illegally cross state lines to make our purchases, and creating hardships for restaurant and bar owners. As one would-be wine entrepreneur noted, "The wine thing keeps me out of Philly."

Reforms have happened in recent years, but they've been small. A number of gas stations recently gained permission from the PLCB to sell sixpacks of beer with only minor restrictions. Newly passed reforms will allow wine and beer to be sold in grocery stores, as well as on Sundays and holidays.

Those are great concessions, but the real reforms have been shot down by legislators who want to keep control. Proposals to get government out of the booze-selling business entirely have been shot down at almost every turn. Lawmakers claim that the state monopoly on alcohol sales is a valuable source of jobs and revenue, not to mention that it helps educate the public. Yet jobs and revenue could just as easily exist if liquor stores were privately owned, as they are in many states. And it's been shown that the cost of alcohol is actually lower in states that permit private liquor sellers to do business.

Pennsylvanians are ready for this step forward. Recent polling, including a study conducted by Franklin & Marshall College, finds that a majority of us support reforming state liquor laws. By the time the DNC gets underway next week, our lawmakers should ensure that Prohibition officially ends in Pennsylvania, only 80-plus years late.

Beth Anne Mumford is the Pennsylvania state director of Americans for Prosperity.