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Dems want to modernize, not privatize, liquor system, Costa says

| Monday, June 17, 2013, 12:30 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Lawmakers and lobbyists said on Monday that relinquishing state control of the wholesale system of liquor and wine sales remains an obstacle to passing liquor privatization in the Senate.

Senate Republicans are scheduled to debate privately on Tuesday the pros and cons of wholesale divestiture and retail privatization, as legislators and Gov. Tom Corbett attempt to resolve major issues by the constitutional budget deadline of June 30.

Under a proposed Senate plan, grocery stores with “R” restaurant licenses that permit beer sales could add wine and spirits carry-out sales. They would get a discount over wine and liquor sold at state stores, which would not be eliminated.

Several officials and lobbyists described the plan, though it was not publicly available.

It differs sharply from a House-passed privatization plan approved in March, which would phase out the 600-plus state stores, move the state out of wholesale control and allow wine sales in grocery stores. It would make beer distributors — with expanded licenses — one-stop shops for buying beer, wine and liquor.

Pennsylvania and Utah are the only states maintaining wholesale and retail control of liquor and wine sales.

If Senate Republicans want the chamber to approve a liquor privatization bill, they must do it themselves, the Senate Democratic leader said.

Minority Leader Jay Costa of Forest Hills made the comments at an informal news briefing at which he discussed the possibility of Republicans offering some type of bill to privatize the liquor system.

“We have 23 votes to modernize ... not privatize,” Costa said.

The Democratic votes, he said, are for keeping state stores, but improving them with proposals such as expanded hours and improved flexibility in pricing.

Republicans, who control the Senate 27-23, had said they might vote this week, but it's uncertain whether that will happen. It takes 26 votes to pass a bill. Republicans hope to get some Democratic support.

Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks County, will discuss his plan on Tuesday at a news conference.

House Republicans consider divestiture of the wholesale system a goal, said Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods. When asked whether that's a deal breaker, Turzai said: “It has always been a crucial component” to House GOP plans.

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

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