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Scarnati: Senate shaky on privatization; time not on legislation's side

| Monday, April 29, 2013, 3:09 p.m.

HARRISBURG — On the eve of the first state Senate hearing on liquor privatization, the chamber's Republican leader on Monday predicted little support for a House-passed bill that would phase out state stores and allow wine sales in grocery stores.

The Senate doesn't have much time to consider the legislation before lawmakers' June 30 summer recess, said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati.

Under the state constitution, the Legislature must adopt a budget by the end of June, Scarnati said, and leaders haven't met with the governor, although there are significant concerns about declining state revenue.

Scarnati of Jefferson County said he remains hopeful the Legislature will enact the budget, a liquor bill and legislation to raise money for transportation needs before recessing.

He would not speculate about the potential to “trade” Senate passage of a liquor bill and House passage of a transportation bill, but Scarnati said transportation is important to the Senate, and the House seeks liquor reform.

Pennsylvania and Utah are the only states whose governments control wholesale and retail sales of liquor and wine. Selling the state stores is a priority of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

“The governor looks forward to working with Senate and House leadership to move his agenda, including consumers' choice and convenience,” said Corbett's spokesman, Kevin Harley.

The Senate Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday will hear from critics of certain aspects of privatization: Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and Drug and Alcohol Service Providers of Pennsylvania. It is the first of three hearings.

“We expect them to amend the bill,” said House Republican spokesman Stephen Miskin.

The House is willing to consider whatever the Senate approves, with a continuing focus on two goals: selling the wholesale system and shutting down state stores, Miskin said. The House GOP wants “more convenience and better prices for consumers,” he said.

The idea of hurrying, just to get something done by June 30, won't be worth it if that produces another flawed liquor system, Scarnati said.

“The last thing I think I want to be part of is another system that doesn't work,” he said.

Scarnati said primary opposition to the House bill approved last month comes from beer distributors. Under that bill, beer distributors, who do not operate under state control, would get first crack — for a year — at bidding on 1,200 licenses to sell liquor and wine. Pennsylvania has 1,138 distributors authorized to sell beer by cases.

The opposition stems from a 2006 Liquor Control Board decision to allow Wegman's Food Market Inc. to sell beer. Distributors say that began the loss of business through other stores with restaurant outlets.

Brad Bumsted is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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