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Unionized liquor store clerks cheer Ferlo opposition to Corbett privatization plan

| Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 11:03 a.m.
An overflow crowd listens as Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, blasts Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley during a Senate Law and Justice Committee hearing on Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in Harrisburg. The hearing focused on whether the state should scrap the 80-year-old liquor monopoly.
Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley responds to Sen. Jim Ferlo's criticisms during a Senate Law and Justice Committee hearing on Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in Harrisburg. The hearing focused on whether the state should scrap the 80-year-old liquor monopoly for a free-market system.
An overflow crowd listens in on a Senate Law and Justice Committee hearing on Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG — To cheers from union workers in the crowd, Democratic Sen. Jim Ferlo on Tuesday delivered a tongue-lashing to the Corbett administration for pushing liquor privatization.

Calling Gov. Tom Corbett's plan “outrageous,” Ferlo criticized Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, Secretary of Health Michael Wolf and State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan for appearing before a Senate committee to back the sale of the state liquor system.

“I'd be embarrassed to come here” and support selling the state stores, said Ferlo, of Highland Park, who believes privatization would cause an explosion in alcohol sales and put unionized state store clerks out of work.

Cawley countered that it was an embarrassment for Ferlo to publicly “impugn the character” of Corbett's top aides.

“What you said was beyond the pale,” Cawley shot back. “This is a responsible proposal by responsible people who are not playing to a crowd.”

Yellow-shirted union workers flooded the hearing room, leaving no seats available 55 minutes before the start of the hearing. Lobbyists, other union workers and reporters jammed the aisles.

Noonan and Wolf declined to respond when Cawley offered the opportunity. Later, both said they did not take it personally.

Cawley, the governor's point man on liquor privatization, faced a tough sell before skeptical Senate Law and Justice Committee members who appear inclined to keep and “modernize” the state stores, based on their public statements during the past few months.

The crowd cheered and clapped for Ferlo, then jeered and hooted at Cawley's effort to defend the administration.

Cawley testified during the committee's third and final hearing on whether to sell the Pennsylvania's liquor system. Two earlier hearings drew witnesses largely critical of Corbett's plan to privatize the government's control of wholesale and retail sales of wine and liquor.

“There are those who say that without state employees behind the cash register, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse will be unleashed upon our commonwealth,” Cawley said. “But this is not the experience in 48 other states.”

Pennsylvania and Utah are the only states that control retail and wholesale sales. Pennsylvania's system was set up in 1933, just after the repeal of Prohibition, to make liquor difficult to buy.

Opponents testifying included Wendell W. Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 in Philadelphia, which represents state store clerks. Young said Corbett and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, a key supporter, have “promised the moon and misled Pennsylvanians” on the issue for two years.

“The governor simply wants to give Pennsylvania consumers the same choice and convenience that people in 48 other states have,” said Corbett's spokesman, Kevin Harley. “He has also proposed using the money from the sale of the state-run liquor and wine business to fund public education.”

“When people resort to ad hominem attacks, it means they are losing on the merits,” Turzai said.

A House-passed bill pending in the Senate would phase out 600-plus state stores and offer 1,200 retail licenses. Beer distributors would get the “first right of refusal” for up to a year on licenses that would enable them to sell wine and liquor as well as beer. Grocery stores could sell wine under the bill sponsored by Turzai.

Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks County, chairman of the Senate committee, said he is crafting legislation that may garner the 26 votes needed for passage in the Republican-controlled chamber. What that bill might look like remains unclear.

Though Young was prepared to tout recent polling showing opposition to privatization, a new poll by Harrisburg-based Susquehanna Polling and Research found 55 percent of registered voters support privatization while 41 percent oppose it. The survey sampled opinions of 873 registered voters from May 6-8.

Jay Weiderhold, president of the Pennsylvania Beer Alliance, a trade group representing wholesale distributors, told the committee there's no point in addressing Corbett's initial plan because Turzai's House Bill 790, passed on March 21, “effectively killed” the governor's proposal. Turzai's bill isn't as broad as Corbett's plan.

The beer alliance opposes Turzai's bill — “as we call it, the anti-beer bill,” Weiderhold said. He supports “beer package reform” that would let distributors sell less than a case of beer.

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

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