Are Pa. booze regulators mulling a post-lockdown price hike? Liquor lobby protests | Friday Morning Coffee

A state liquor store front in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison).

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

We’re big fans of Gary Larson’s immortal “The Far Side” newspaper strip. The one-panel cartoons, which usually drove home their point with a masterful sight gag, or a weapons-grade pun, were (and are) required reading for us for years.

One of our favorites involves a disappointed Caveman Dad, and his sheepish son. Upon regarding the youngster’s report card, the Caveman Dad bellows at Caveman Kid, “Oh look, this get better. F in history. Him even flunk something that not happen yet.”

We were reminded of that eye-wateringly funny strip as we read a letter that two mega-trade groups, the Distilled Spirits Council of America (DISCUS) and the American Distilled Spirits Alliance (ADSA), sent the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board this week, warning the regulatory panel about carrying through with a price increase that could take effect in August — potentially just weeks or a month or two after the stores reopen.

“In light of the severe disruption in spirits sales caused by the continued closure of all Pennsylvania state stores, we urge you to suspend all scheduled PLCB initiated price adjustments scheduled to go into effect in August 2020,” the Distilled Spirits Council’s president and CEO Chris Swonger and ADSA President Matt Dogali wrote. “In our view, there couldn’t be a worse time to raise prices on Pennsylvania consumers. Store closures during the COVID-19 outbreak resulted in a significant drop in state tax revenue from lost spirits sales, approximately $16 million per week. It would be incredibly misguided to increase prices on spirits products now to make up for that shortfall.”

With Pennsylvania’s booze aficionados now one website crash away from staging their own version of the barricades scene from “Les Miz,” carrying through with a price increase probably a month of so out after Keystone Staters slake the mother of all thirsts, strikes us a spectacularly bad idea.

Image Source: PixaBay

Admittedly, things had been getting better in the three or four years since state lawmakers performed their own water-into-wine miracle by getting wine-into-Wegmans.

But along came the precedent-shredding COVID-19 pandemic, the decision to shutter state stores, and an online sales system that can charitably be described as “quirky.” And during a recent briefing with journalists, Gov. Tom Wolf acknowledged the own-goal on the online system, and said the state had to fix it.

Existing state law gives the PLCB complete discretion to increase prices without legislative authorization. But, much like every other mystifying government decision, just because you can do something, it doesn’t always follow that you should do it.

State Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, who’s pushing a bill to repeal the agency’s “flexible pricing” policy, as it’s known, noted in a statement that the price hike, coming on top of “store closures and the negative impacts of COVID-19” has only “exacerbated the problems caused by flexible pricing, and the need for repeal is only more prevalent.”

(Image via pxHere.com)

In an e-mail, PLCB spokesperson Elizabeth Brassell said the regulatory agency had yet to make up its mind, and accused the two trade groups of “irresponsible” behavior for trying to frighten the olive clean out of Pennsylvanians’ martinis.

“The PLCB has not made any final decisions to increase prices in August, and quite frankly it’s inappropriate and irresponsible for DISCUS to misrepresent this issue in the press at this time, particularly when its own members continue to propose cost increases to the PLCB,” Brassell wrote. “DISCUS’s letter suggests they only support supplier-initiated price increases and disapprove of retailer-imposed increases, since the PLCB at its public meeting just yesterday [Wednesday] approved 53 price increases resulting from supplier increases in product acquisition costs.

Brassell added that “the truth is that the PLCB reached out to suppliers in March to invite their participation in cost negotiations relative to roughly 400 items, out of thousands of products sold by the PLCB. These are ongoing discussions between the PLCB and its individual suppliers, conversations DISCUS is not privy to.”

She concluded: “In pricing its products, the PLCB remains committed to two goals: first, to provide a wide selection of products that deliver value, variety and quality at fair and competitive prices, and second, as a state-run enterprise responsible for significant contributions to the Commonwealth’s General Fund, to maximize revenue for the benefit of all Pennsylvanians.”

We’ll leave it to you to decide who’s the Caveman Dad and the Caveman Kid in this scenario. But if there was ever a case of life imitating art …

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
With legislative Republicans heading toward a confrontation with the Democratic Wolf administration over whether to send some Pennsylvanians back to work, workers caught in the middle wonder what this all means to them, Stephen Caruso reports.

State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine had a warning for the protesters set to descend on the Capitol this week to voice their displeasure with ongoing stay-at-home orders: “You’re only putting yourselves at risk.” Cassie Miller has the story.

During a tele-town hall on Thursday night, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., found constituents, weary of lockdown life, with plenty on their minds.

With its application on hold, Erie Correspondent Hannah MacDonald took an opportunity to fact check the competing financials of a proposed community college for Erie and the online-only Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, whose patron, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, is retiring at year’s end.

On our Commentary Page, an industry advocate makes the argument for legalizing recreational cannabis (Speaking of which, anyone else nostalgic for the days when a “marijuana industry advocate” was the guy behind you at a Phish show?). Clean energy can be a pillar of the post-COVID-19 economyJoe Minott of the Clean Air Council writes. And Pa. needs to ensure access to food during the pandemic, says Kadida Kenner of the Pa. Budget and Policy Center. 

(Image via Flickr Commons)

Elsewhere.
If you couldn’t get unemployment benefits in Pennsylvania, then this federal program could help you, the Inquirer reports.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who’s been tapped for a White House task force, supports reopening parts of the economy ‘very soon,’ the Post-Gazette reports.
PennLive ‘unpacks’ the Wolf administration’s mandatory mask order.
WHYY-FM considers whether the COVID-19 lockdown will speed up construction work on I-95.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

The PA Post talks to cash-strapped, self-employed Pennsylvanians who are making the tough choice between unemployment or taking out loans 
The U.S. House Republicans’ super-PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, is making a multi-million dollar ad buy in Pennsylvania, PoliticsPA reports.
Politico’s Ryan Lizza has this first-person account of covering a Trump COVID-19 briefing.

What Goes On.
Time TBD:
 Daily COVID-19 briefing.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Harrisburg PR guy Dave La Torre, who celebrates today. And congratulations go out in advance to Mallory Gricoskie in the office of Gov. Tom Wolf. Enjoy the day, folks.

Heavy Rotation.
This one’s a little dark, but here’s Pittsburgh’s own, the late, great Mac Miller, with “Weekend.”

Friday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link.
From MLB.com, 
here’s the best major league squad made up of players who are all 40 or older. Represent.

And now you’re up to date.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press