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Corbett to unveil plan to sell state liquor stores — or thereabouts

| Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, 1:00 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett on Wednesday will announce a “full privatization” plan to sell the state liquor stores, but fellow Republican leaders already are raising concerns with his plan to raise $1 billion for transportation, education or reducing state pension liabilities.

“I suspect that'll be the discussion in the General Assembly, and everybody will have their perspective on that. But first our plan will be laid out,” Corbett said during an unrelated appearance in Moon. He will discuss his liquor plan Downtown.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, told reporters he wants to look at “modernization” of the existing system and expressed concerns about access in rural areas if the state stores are sold.

House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, said he believes the House might be interested in a hybrid plan that would not involve sale of the state system in one shot.

“You're seeing some real differences and opinions within Republican leadership on what is an acceptable end product,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Corbett's spokesman Kevin Harley said it will be “a bold plan that encompasses what the governor has been saying for two years: that the state should not be in the business of selling wine and spirits and consumers should have the same choices they do in 48 other states.”

Only Utah controls retail and wholesale wine and spirit sales like Pennsylvania.

Supporters of a full privatization plan want government out of the liquor business, said Nathan Benefield, policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation.

“I expect the plan would go a step further than legislation discussed last session from a convenience perspective and allow consumers to pick up their bread, beer and Bordeaux in one trip,” he said.

Smith said one example of a hybrid that might find support would allow people to buy beer and wine in groceries while state stores sell liquor.

“We have a system today that is not perfect, but it works,” said Smith. He suggested changes would be phased in.

Scarnati objected to linking sale of the liquor stores to a transportation funding plan that would likely have bipartisan support.

“I don't think I'm linking,” Corbett said. “Maybe the people who make the votes and stuff are linking. I would tell Joe (Scarnati), if he were here, ‘Joe, I'm not linking, you guys are.'”

A Republican senator from Bucks County on Tuesday reintroduced legislation that would allow beer retailers to purchase a special license to sell wine and spirits. The new license would allow a greater number of retailers to sell liquor without changing the wholesale purchasing system.

The proposal by Sen. Chuck McIlhinney would allow beer distributors to sell different quantities of alcohol. The law prohibits distributors from selling beer in quantities of less than a case. McIlhinney's plan would allow some distributors to sell six-packs or single bottles of beer.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, tried in vain in the 2011-12 session to bring a liquor store divestiture bill to the floor, but the votes weren't there.

Polls show widespread public support for selling the state stores, but the issue doesn't rise to the level of jobs, health care, transportation, taxes and education, Borick said.

Jack Treadway, retired chairman of the political science department at Kutztown University, said he believes Corbett's plan has a shot in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

But Tom Baldino, a professor of political science at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, believes there isn't overwhelming support.

Democrats tend to oppose privatization based on concern for state jobs and union opposition, Baldino said. Some Republicans remain concerned about the expanded use of alcohol in a private system, he said.

Corbett presents his budget to the Republican-controlled General Assembly on Feb. 5 and will offer his transportation funding plan the same day in Harrisburg.

Linking issues could involve trade-offs of votes to secure passage of dissimilar bills. Former G ov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, made such demands, typically just before the budget deadline of June 30.

It may complicate the issues “when we start taking hostages,” said Scarnati.

Staff writer Jeremy Boren contributed to this report. Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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