A liquor law compromise, by any other name…

Kitty Kon of Robinson browses the selection of wines at the Settler's Ridge Market District on Friday, Aug. 19, 2016.  Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Kitty Kon of Robinson browses the selection of wines at the Settler’s Ridge Market District on Friday, Aug. 19, 2016. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

BY KARI ANDREN  kandren@tribweb.com

In politics as in life, words are powerful.

How politicians or advocates phrase a pitch to voters can decidedly color how that idea is perceived. Consider, for example, the connotation of “gun control” versus “violence prevention” or “pro-abortion” versus “pro-choice.”

In Pennsylvania, we parse words over an issue near and dear to residents’ hearts:  booze.

In June, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law that expands wine sales to grocery stores, allows state stores to be open longer hours and customers to get wine shipped to their doors as well as a host of other changes.

Act 39 is hailed by virtually all sides as the Great Liquor Compromise.

But if you look carefully, Republicans – who typically support fully turning over alcohol sales to private businesses – call Act 39 “privatization.”

Meanwhile Democrats, who tend to support state stores for the millions of dollars they pump into state coffers and thousands of union jobs they provide, proclaim Act 39 as “modernizing” state liquor laws.

A few examples from the last week:

“After more than 80 years of full government control, the Prohibition Era has ended and the Privatization Era has begun,” trumpeted House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, as the first grocery store wine sales launched in Robinson.

“We call it privatization — or at least steps toward privatization,” said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans. “We understand it’s not a total accomplishment, but it’s something where we wanted to take steps in the right direction.”

Wolf, a Democrat, cheered the new law: “This historic liquor reform package … enhances the customer experience by providing Pennsylvanians with greater convenience and satisfaction.”

And Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Centre County, said: “I know many of my constituents are happy with the liquor modernization efforts that have recently taken effect.”

So who’s right?

Well, everyone.

The new law does allow a private business, like a grocery store or restaurant, to sell bottles of wine directly to the consumer for the first time. That’s at least a modicum of privatization.

On the other hand, those businesses have to buy the wine from the state Liquor Control Board. And state stores aren’t going anywhere; in fact, they will be open longer and more days a week. Those changes are part of modernization proposals bandied about for years.

“I think it’s more than semantics,” said Gerald Shuster, professor of political communications at the University of Pittsburgh. “In both cases, it fits right into the political philosophies of both parties.”

The word choice reinforces to constituents what each side was fighting for in the compromise, Shuster said.

“They both claim victory without selling out and without being critical of the other side,” he said.

As for the agency tasked with rolling out the new law?

“It’s a debate,” Board member Michael Negra told WHTM-TV reporter Dennis Owens when asked recently.

“We’re not going to get into the political fray,” said LCB spokeswoman Elizabeth Brassell. “We are implementing Act 39 as it was enacted.”

This story was first posted at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, August 25 2016

Open Records Office requires appeals on full sheets of paper

BY KARI ANDREN  kandren@tribweb.com

Put down the Post-Its. Set aside the paper scraps. The state Office of Open Records only wants full sheets of paper.

The office dismissed an appeal for records this week that had been filed by state prison inmate David Dixon on a scrap that amounted to about 1/3 of a sheet of paper, said Erik Arneson, executive director of the office.

The Office of Open Records is the quasi-judicial state agency that enforces Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. When public agencies deny information, say they don’t possess relevant documents, or don’t respond to requests, citizens can appeal to the office for free.

Seeking public records using a full sheet of paper might seem obvious, but it turns out, that’s a stipulation the OOR had to put in writing. Appeals must be filed on 8.5×11 inch or 8.5×14 inch paper.

“We put that policy into place last year because we were receiving a lot of inmate appeals on paper fragments and, given the volume of cases we deal with, it really slows things down when the paperwork can’t be scanned into the system using our copier/scanner,” Arneson said.

The OOR dispensed with a record 2,926 appeals in 2015, with 61 percent coming from inmates, according to the agency’s annual report.

Arneson said the OOR once received an appeal filed on the back of a soup can label.

State prison inmates are provided with a writing instrument, and indigent inmates are given stationery and writing instruments upon request, said Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton. Otherwise, inmates can buy pens, paper, folders and other office supplies from the prison commissary, she said.

A commissary price list shows 200 sheets of notebook paper costs $2.11 while 200 sheets of ink jet computer paper totals $5.87. Both are 8.5×11 inches, which would be accepted by the OOR.

Dixon can file a new appeal as long as 15 days have not elapsed since his request to the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole was denied, according to the OOR Final Determination.

This is just the latest example of inmate requests and appeals shaping the state’s Right to Know Law, enacted in 2008.

The prevalence of inmate requests – which have sought everything from mundane records on prison policies to oddities like education records of singer Taylor Swift – spurred proposed changes to what inmates can seek from public agencies.

Senate Bill 411, approved by the Senate last fall and now pending in a House committee, would limit inmate requests to about a dozen categories related to inmates’ education, discipline and work; court procedures and sentencing; and information about the prison in which they’re housed.

This story was first posted Thursday, August 11, 2016 at 2:15 p.m.