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State FOP chief: Crime would spike without state control of liquor sales

| Tuesday, April 30, 2013, 12:06 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Privatizing state liquor stores under a House bill would drain police resources and result in higher crime rates, the president of the Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police told a Senate panel on Tuesday.

The bill would “lead to more alcohol-related and collateral-type crimes, which will create a greater risk of harm to police officers and to the civilians we are sworn to protect,” the FOP's Les Neri said.

“Nobody can say that,” Col. Frank Noonan, the state police commissioner and a former FBI agent, told reporters afterward.

“There is no way to tell, really,” Noonan said, noting that people can cite studies to make virtually any point.

Neri was one of several witnesses testifying to the Senate Law and Justice Committee about the bill, which Republican Gov. Tom Corbett supports. It would allow wine sales in grocery stores and would phase out state liquor stores.

The committee could play a key role in shaping or killing liquor reform legislation. Chairman Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks County, plans two more hearings. He told reporters he intends to put together his own bill for the committee's consideration by mid-June.

It will be difficult to get 26 votes needed for passage in the 50-member Senate, McIlhinney said.

In an open letter to all senators, David Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, said the lineup of critics at the hearing “seems intended to generate ill-will towards privatization because of so-called ‘social impacts.' ”

McIlhiney denied any such effort. The next hearing will focus on retailers and the third on testimony from the governor's office.

Pennsylvania and Utah are the only states whose governments control wholesale and retail liquor sales. Pennsylvania's system is a vestige of Prohibition, established in 1933 to make liquor purchases difficult.

Despite witnesses opposing privatization, Corbett called the hearing “a first step in bringing Pennsylvanian consumers choice and convenience.”

Sen. Jim Ferlo of Highland Park, the committee's ranking Democrat, said privatization “is about ideology and stupidity, as far as I'm concerned.” Ferlo is sponsoring a bill to “modernize” the 600-plus state stores to try to increase profits.

The House approved its bill last month.

Other witnesses told the Senate panel that without millions of newfound dollars, privatization would place public safety at risk.

“The need for professional liquor law enforcement will be even greater,” said Charles Rubino, president of the Pennsylvania Liquor Enforcement Association.

The state police Bureau of Liquor Enforcement, with 140 officers, enforces liquor laws. At least 70 to 75 troopers would be needed if the privatization bill becomes law, said Joe Kovel, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association. He said he was not testifying for or against the House bill.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter.

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