Scanning ads for Delaware liquor stores or picking up beer and booze while down the Shore, Pennsylvanians can only dream of cheaper prices, boundless choices, and one-stop shopping at home. Stuck with their state-regulated, post-Prohibition system, consumers have two choices: whine and bear it.
But the state is slowly sticking its toe into the 21st century, making it easier to buy beer, wine, and spirits - one step at a time. Spoiler alert: Don't expect privatization of the unpopular State Stores anytime soon. Renaming them Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores only fools tourists.
Consumers can, however, mark down Jan. 14 on their calendars. That's when the state's 1,000-plus beverage distributors can start selling beer in quantities other than a case, 12-pack, or keg. Imagine buying a four-pack, six-pack, 32-ounce bottle, growler, or even a single can of beer. Cheers!
Gov. Wolf signed the groundbreaking legislation earlier this month. It also will allow consumers to join beer-of-the-month clubs that ship directly to homes and farmers' markets to sell honey wine, also known as mead.
These improvements follow expanded beer sales at specially licensed gas stations, though the Malt Beverage Distributors Association is fighting the move in state Supreme Court.
And wine lovers got a buzz in June, when the legislature and governor surprisingly agreed to allow them to grab up to four bottles a pop at supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants, and hotels. They can also now buy directly from out-of-state wineries, though the commonwealth will still wet its beak by collecting sales taxes and a new $2.50-per-gallon excise tax ($5.95 for a case of a dozen 750-milliliter bottles). That's high relative to other states.
That law also allowed the state Liquor Control Board to open more of its 601 stores on Sundays and to extend their hours.
But these piecemeal changes are not good enough. Wolf, the legislature, and the LCB must, once and for all, resist pressure from the powerful union that staffs State Stores and get out of the booze business. Harrisburg has enough trouble passing a budget and dealing with the pension crisis; it shouldn't be determining which Wawa can sell beer and which Wegmans can sell wine to go.
Even with the relaxed rules, vendors must apply and pay for licenses: Guess who covers that cost? It's past time to let consumers buy adult beverages when and where they want and for the lowest price.
With all of the hand-tying rules, consider some of the state's head-scratching accommodations: Bars selling drinks starting at 9 a.m. on Sundays without serving food; stadiums and arenas selling mixed drinks; airport bars open 24 hours a day, with open containers permitted throughout the terminals; and casinos serving drinks around the clock, though none have applied for the $1 million-a-year license.
What change is next on tap?
Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai says there's still a desire to lease the LCB's wholesale operations. But even with GOP control of both chambers, that would be a heavy lift when they reconvene next year.
Making beer, wine, and hard liquor easier and cheaper to buy will be one of the governor's legacies; tarnished, however, by his steadfast refusal to quit the business completely.