Pennsylvania to fight one of Prohibition’s last battles
The constitutional issue of Prohibition remains alive, in spirit, in Pennsylvania, but the commonwealth’s liquor control system might be under siege from the state’s governor.
Governor Tom Corbett is expected to announce a sweeping plan to privatize Pennsylvania’s liquor sales system, which literally dates back to the end days of Prohibition in 1933.
The state’s voters have approved, in various polls, moves to allow liquor sales at retail and convenience stores, like many other states, and more products in more stores.
Corbett’s powerful predecessors have lost the booze battle in previous years to an unlikely coalition that has its roots in the second term of former Governor Gifford Pinchot.
Pinchot is best known nationally for his conservation role in the Theodore Roosevelt administration.
But as a vocal “dry” in late 1933, Pinchot used his position as the Keystone State’s governor to make sure the state’s liquor system made buying booze very difficult.
Just days before Prohibition’s end, Governor Pinchot called a special assembly of the state legislature, with the goals of setting up the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and making access to liquor very tightly controlled.
The 21st Amendment ended national Prohibition laws and allowed the states for themselves decide how to regulate the manufacture, transportation, and sale of liquor. (Pinchot also oversaw efforts to ratify the amendment within Pennsylvania.
In a January 1934 issue of The Rotarian, Pinchot laid out his “State Store Plan” for Pennsylvania to curb liquor consumption through a strict Soviet-style system of controlled access. (Actually, Pinchot pointed to Canada as the inspiration for the system.
“Private profit is to be eliminated as far as possible from the liquor traffic,” Pinchot said.
The Pinchot plan states that the system will be able to sell liquor at a cheaper price to consumers and some of the funds will go to social benefits plans. Hours of sale are controlled by the state, as well as how liquor is imported into the state.
And at all costs, saloons should be barred forever, and “liquor money” should be kept out of the hands of politicians.
But private competition was the evil that Pinchot really feared.
“If sales were in the hands of private retailers and wholesalers, there would be sharp competition for business. People would be urged to buy this brand and that brand. Under our plan anyone may purchase any brand or kind of liquor. If the article wanted is not in stock, the state stores must obtain it,” Pinchot said.
Flashing forward to the year 2013, the battle is still on as privatization forces prepare to fight a coalition of modern “drys,” state unions, social conservatives, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
In the past, the liberal-conservative alliance defeated efforts by two powerhouse Republican governors, Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge, to privatize liquor.
Ridge was the last to tackle privatization in 1997.
Currently, the board’s critics point to the two same issues that Pinchot talked about in 1934. They say that consumers are paying too much for beer, wine, and liquor in Pennsylvania, with access to fewer products.
The board’s counterclaim is that the system is one of the largest bulk buyers of liquor in the world, and it passes those savings on to consumers. And the state has changed its laws in recent years to extend store hours and offer some products at grocery stores and other outlets.
In 2010, Corbett, then the attorney general, said as a candidate he favored the privatization of liquor sales. After becoming governor, he asked for research to be updated about how much money the state would make from selling its retail stores and issuing more licenses to private outlets.
Previous estimates said the state would possibly realize a one-time gain as high as $2 billion from auctioning off its liquor assets. An updated 2011 study put the number at $1.6 billion.
Another state recently ended its Prohibition-era battle over liquor. In November 2011, the state of Washington let voters decide in a referendum if its Pennsylvania-style liquor system should stay intact.
Last June, the new rules went into effect in Washington privatizing liquor sales, and the results have been mixed at best.
Prices were higher for hard liquor after privatization, reports a local newspaper, as of January 2013.
Washington state’s board also has a bonus problem this year: It gets to figure out how to distribute marijuana after another voter referendum made the substance legal under controlled circumstances.
In the end, Pennsylvania’s liquor problem will rest with its Republican-controlled legislature, which is divided over the issue.
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