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Here a shot, there a shot: Propaganda flows freely in Pennsylvania debate over liquor stores

| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The forecast was frightful. The propaganda piled up high.

Pennsylvania privatizing its archaic state-run liquor store system would result in the systemic breakdown of law and order, a dramatic upturn in the blood sport of dog fighting and the opening of a number of unlicensed day care centers operated by Haitian voodoo practitioners.

I'm exaggerating slightly. But Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Keystone Research Center, certainly laid out a gloom-and-doom scenario in testimony submitted Tuesday to a Senate committee holding hearings on the privatization issue.

A brief refresher on how the two legislative chambers are proceeding with this long-overdue reform attempt:

• The white-hatted House has approved legislation to overhaul the beer and liquor system. It would increase consumer choice as it gradually turns over alcohol sales to private retailers. (Those are good things unless you believe a government that can't maintain its roads and bridges can operate a wine and spirits business more efficiently than the private sector. If that's the case, you probably spend far too much time consuming wine and/or spirits.)

• The black-hatted Senate appears content to down shot after shot of status quo and maintain a system that only the Mad Hatter could love.

Herzenberg's testimony stopped just short of advocating a return to Prohibition. He warned that privatizing the system would increase excessive drinking, alcohol-related traffic fatalities and other social and medical problems associated with heavy drinking.

The Keystone Research Center supposedly is a nonpartisan think tank that touts itself as “a leading source of independent analysis of Pennsylvania's economy and public policy.” But on this issue, the organization's independence appears suspect.

One of the center's directors is Al Vincent, vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Curiously, UFCW Local 1776 represents more than 3,000 wine and spirits store employees who oppose privatization.

The union has vowed to spend as much as $1 million on a TV and radio campaign that began Friday to discredit what it labels a “reckless scheme” that would “put alcohol on every street corner and increase crime.”

Hyperbole? Perhaps not. The privatization of alcohol sales seems a radical plan when you consider that only 48 other states engage in some form of this “reckless scheme.”

Reached Friday, Herzenberg said his policy group receives about one-half of 1 percent of its approximately $1 million annual budget from the UFCW. Asked about his organization's transparency, he said: “We're a transparent organization. The members of our board of directors are listed on our website.”

Undoubtedly, committee members who reviewed Herzenberg's testimony regularly visit that website.

The propaganda is piling up. People might not want to take at face value everything they hear regarding how horrible things would be with private liquor sales.

Comets won't suddenly pummel Pennsylvania if CoGo's sells Coors.

Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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