It's been noted that Pennsylvania's Soviet-style ministry of alcohol might be headed the way of the U.S.S.R. for a few reasons.
The incoming governor and state House majority leader (not to mention most of the state's humans) are avowed detractors of ye olde Liquor Control Board. And a $4 billion budget deficit should have Harrisburg reconsidering nonessential functions, as well as such nonessential malfunctions as the booze bureaucracy.
But the most compelling case for eliminating the LCB has been advanced by the LCB itself. After eight decades of encouraging us to buy liquor in Jersey, the agency stepped up its bid for oblivion last summer by debuting its wine "kiosks."
Any effort to defend the state's liquor regime should be obliterated by this monstrous example of government gone mad. Reminiscent of HAL 9000, the haywire computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, these adult-beverage vending machines are equipped with license readers, Breathalyzers, and live links to LCB central to make sure you're not a drunk teenager trying to buy Pinot Grigio. And lest we forget the whole debacle, the machines arranged a helpful reminder last week by breaking down just in time for the holidays, forcing the state to pull the plugs.
Why shouldn't the Liquor Control Board be next? Because, supporters say, it clears half a billion dollars a year for the state. The bulk of that, however, is in taxes that would be levied anyway. The remaining $100 million or so could easily be covered by licensing fees and the taxes generated by sales that return from across the border. Moreover, any "profit" the state stores are generating depends on their inflated prices.
What about the more than 3,000 jobs at the LCB? Presumably, private liquor stores would also employ people (and fewer wine-dispensing robots). Any drop in the number and compensation of workers would represent the current misallocation of taxpayer money. Both the people and the state have too many needs and too few resources to be subsidizing an inefficient, unproductive jobs program.
There are legitimate concerns about the means of privatization. It shouldn't be used primarily to close a onetime budget gap, particularly if that means pumping up license prices and making liquor stores a state-sanctioned oligopoly like the casinos. The goal should be to return the sector to the market while recouping the value of state assets.
But the complicated details of privatization shouldn't obscure the simple illogic of maintaining 620 government liquor stores. Anyone having trouble understanding that should sober up before attempting to operate a wine vending machine.