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Turzai: House could get liquor privatization bill soon

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 1:18 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Jennifer Brown, a buyer for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, tastes wine on April 13, 2012. The tastings help to determine which new wines and liquors to stock in state stores. Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review

HARRISBURG — The House Republican leader on Tuesday introduced Gov. Tom Corbett's full-scale liquor privatization plan and plans to push for a vote in two weeks.

Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, sponsored Corbett's plan to relieve the state of its liquor business. Turzai's spokesman, Stephen Miskin, said House Bill 790 is “the bill proposed by Gov. Corbett, word for word.”

Turzai told reporters it's headed for a vote in the House Liquor Committee on March 18 and a final House floor vote March 21 or April 8, though he expects lawmakers to make changes.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, criticized Turzai for pushing the bill without adequate public input.

“The more complicated his plan becomes, the faster he wants to vote on it with no committee hearings,” Dermody said. “That should be a big flashing sign that something is wrong. ... Leader Turzai is pushing for a vote on his liquor bill before almost any discussion takes place.”

Pennsylvania and Utah are the only states controlling wholesale and retail sales of liquor and wine. Corbett, a Shaler Republican, would get rid of 619 state stores and allow wine and beer sales in grocery stores, pharmacies and big box stores. Beer distributors buying “enhanced” licenses could sell liquor and wine.

Corbett contends his plan would garner $1 billion over four years, which would go to school districts as block grants. The plan addresses “consumer choice and convenience,” the governor says.

Turzai held three public hearings last year on a privatization bill he proposed. That bill was “dramatically different” from Corbett's proposal or a modified plan that some Republicans are considering, said Wendell W. Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents state store clerks and opposes privatization.

Closing state stores and the fate of about 3,500 clerks hindered attempts to privatize Pennsylvania's system of selling wine and spirits, adopted when Prohibition ended in 1933. GOP governors Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburgh could not win legislative support for privatization.

Corbett's spokesman Kevin Harley called the union “one of the most powerful special interest groups” in the state.

House Liquor Committee Chairman John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, has circulated a potential alternative to Corbett's bill, though he hasn't formally introduced a bill or amendment. His hybrid plan would keep state stores open. Grocery stores could sell beer and wine, and beer distributors would have a shot at getting licenses to sell liquor and wine.

Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, which supports Corbett's plan, said Taylor's proposal “falls short in providing what the citizens of Pennsylvania demand: convenience, choices, and limiting the (Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) to its proper role as regulator.”

Privately run “mom and pop” stores would be forced to compete with taxpayer-funded, government-run stores, Brouillette said. The plan maintains the state's wholesale monopoly, he said.

Taylor has said he is trying to develop a plan that could win House approval.

“What I make of it is, Republicans are not all on the same side of the issue,” Young said.

“This is not an easy task, by any stretch of the imagination,” Harley said.

Turzai said he expects lawmakers to alter Corbett's plan, noting that it's commonplace for either chamber of the General Assembly to do so. He stopped short of saying he would oppose privatization legislation that keeps state stores open.

If state stores remained under a privatization plan, Turzai said private retailers eventually would put them out of business.

Any bill that emerges from the House would have an uncertain fate in the Senate. President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, has given privatization a cool reception and spoken in favor of “modernization” of state stores to increase revenue.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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