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Turzai, governor drop privatization push for state stores

| Tuesday, June 19, 2012, 12:52 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Josie Curran, 68, of Murrysville makes a purchase on Wednesday, June 6, 2012, at the state store on Route 22 near her home. Curran and her husband, Chuck, favor privatization. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai called off their drive to privatize state wine and liquor stores on Tuesday, staking their hopes on a brief fall session before Election Day.

Absorbed with finalizing a state budget by June 30, they said another push on state stores would have to wait. The state House debated Turzai's privatization plan last week, and another round of debate had been planned for Monday but never occurred.

Corbett said he supports the plan “wholeheartedly” and wants to be more personally involved this summer.

“I commend (Turzai) for everything he has been doing to get this pushed through further and further than probably it's ever been,” Corbett said after meeting with Republican legislative leaders.

Turzai of Bradford Woods said fellow Republicans can't get the plan “over the goal line” despite agreeing on the concept of turning over wine and liquor sales to private operators.

“To get to the sweet spot to be able to garner the support in the House is going to take additional work,” Turzai said. “Hopefully we'll be able to do a lot of that over the summer.”

Turzai's plan would sell the 621 state stores and license 1,600 private retail outlets. The state's 1,200 beer distributors would have the first shot at buying licenses to sell beverages that are now available only at state-owned stores.

The pullback caused opponents to claim victory, and analysts to express little optimism that a deal will be reached before the Nov. 6 election.

“I think it's dead for this year,” said Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, a longtime opponent. “This is as dead as it gets. It's called an election year.”

Turzai's bill was “a flawed idea,” would have cost 5,000 people their jobs “and it's clear people, Democrat and Republican alike, think it's a bad idea,” Evans said.

Turzai spokesman Steve Miskin said that's just an excuse.

“People want the state out of the liquor business,” Miskin said. “They want selection and they want choice. ... Not a single job would be lost.”

Some lawmakers expressed concerns about the plan's fiscal impact on the state when it no longer receives both tax revenue and state store profits. Others worry rural areas won't get the accessibility and selection proponents promise under a private system.

The failure of Turzai's plan “was more death by a thousand cuts than it was one or two body shots,” said state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City.

Former Govs. Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburgh tried and failed to privatize state liquor sales. Neither chamber of the Legislature has ever passed a bill, though an amendment to sell the stores failed in 1992.

“That track record doesn't speak to optimism that some type of agreement is going to come, especially in the fall of an election year,” said Chris Borick, a pollster and political scientist at Muhlenberg College near Allentown.

“The idea that there are many nagging issues is sometimes more problematic than one major, single stumbling block that you can identify,” Borick said. “Even when there is agreement in principle among legislators and the governor, the details are onerous in terms of finding some kind of common ground.”

Turzai remains optimistic.

“Is it dead? No,” said Miskin. “Will it become law this session? Maybe not. But it is going to come back, and there will be votes, and there will be a majority in the House and Senate supporting it.”

Brad Bumsted is state capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Bumsted can be reached at 717-787-1405, and Andren can be reached at 724-850-2856.

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