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Pa. House ready to vote on liquor privatization bill

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 2:33 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The House defeated a key amendment aimed at killing a liquor privatization plan, setting the stage for a historic vote Thursday on phasing out 619 state-owned liquor stores.

“It's the first time in the history of the state that a modified privatization plan may pass a chamber,” said G. Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College.

“I'm pretty optimistic right now,” said Nathan Benefield, a Commonwealth Foundation analyst who followed the debate. “The time is coming. ... Republicans, for the most part, stood together.”

After two hours of debate, the Republican-controlled House abruptly adjourned when Democrats pulled their amendments. Lawmakers will return for a final vote on the bill to phase out state stores and allow private-sector sales of wine and spirits.

The bill pushed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett allows grocery stores to sell wine and lets beer distributors, who would apply for an expanded license, to sell liquor, wine and beer.

House Democrats, in opposing the bill, surprised many by dropping dozens of amendments they planned to offer.

Privatizing liquor sales is a priority of Corbett's. He has said he wants Pennsylvanians to have the convenience afforded to consumers in 48 other states. Pennsylvania and Utah are the only states controlling wholesale and retail sales of liquor and wine.

Wendell W. Young IV, who heads the Philadelphia-based union representing state store clerks, said Wednesday he expected the vote to be “very, very close.”

But the vote on a key amendment by Rep. Paul Costa, D-Turtle Creek, intended to “gut” the privatization bill was not close at all.

It was defeated 108 to 91, which played into the opponents' strategy of abandoning the fight until Thursday.

“We felt we had a better shot of defeating it if we left it like it is,” said Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg. He dropped his 39 amendments at his leaders' request.

The Democrats took their best shot with the Costa amendment, which called for “modernizing” state stores with flexible pricing and broader opportunities for Sunday sales. It would have allowed shipment of wine to consumers.

Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, said Costa's amendment would have wiped out the months of work by the House Liquor Control Committee he chairs to produce a compromise bill.

But House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said Costa's amendment would have taken “a bad bill” and made it “a great bill.”

A liquor privatization bill stalled in the House last June. Corbett proposed a new version in January. Taylor's committee this week approved the compromise measure.

“There was a strong belief by many it would not pass the House,” Madonna said. Now despite “stronger opposition in the Senate,” he does not write off the chances of Senate passage if the House approves the bill Thursday.

With Corbett facing re-election in 2014 with sagging poll numbers and half of the Senate on the ballot, the question is whether “this has become a political imperative for Senate Republicans,” Madonna said.

If Corbett gets a bill through both chambers he would surpass the efforts of two former Republican governors, Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburgh, who were unsuccessful in selling the state stores.

The bill under consideration is similar to Corbett's plan but it does not automatically eliminate state stores and would not use up to $1 billion from license sales for education block grants.

Other provisions of the bill:

• Closes state stores within a county when private stores are double the number of state stores there.

• When the number of state stores statewide falls below 100, all would close.

• Beer distributors could sell six-packs, 12-packs and 64-ounce “growlers,” not just cases.

• Grocery stores would continue to sell beer, as they can now, if they have separate eating areas and obtain a restaurant license.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or

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