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Senator's liquor plan offers sales, packaging reform but no state store closings

| Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 4:57 p.m.

HARRISBURG — With Republican leaders flanking him, a Bucks County senator offered a plan on Tuesday that he said would allow existing liquor licensees to sell wine and liquor to go but lacks a mechanism to close more than 600 state-controlled stores.

Under the latest proposal to reshape the state's system of alcohol sales, licensees such as hotels, restaurants and beer distributors could buy permits for $8,000 annually to expand to sell liquor and wine, said Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, a Republican.

The proposal doesn't have enough support to pass the Senate, said Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, who insisted he is still “optimistic.” He called it “a great starting point.”

His plan suggests a two-year study to determine the future of state-controlled wholesale liquor and wine sales.

State-owned wine and spirits stores “would be phased out over time when the private retail market can accommodate the needs of consumers,” his news release stated.

McIlhinney said his proposal would eliminate the state's 18 percent liquor tax but would provide $140 million annually in profit that could go toward property tax relief for senior citizens.

He did not offer a draft of his legislation for review.

McIlhinney, chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said his plan includes “packaging reform” that would enable beer distributors to sell six-packs instead of just cases and allow bars to sell four six-packs at a time to go.

Sen. Jim Ferlo of Highland Park, ranking Democrat on the committee, called the plan “a cruel hoax.”

“I don't see where the numbers add up,” Ferlo said. He called the notion of property tax relief for seniors a “placebo” aimed at garnering support.

Wendell W. Young IV, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers of Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits Council, said the plan would mean “tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue.”

The House in March approved a bill that would eliminate state wholesale control, allow wine sales in grocery stores and let beer distributors sell wine and liquor. Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, could not be reached.

Lawmakers intend to recess for summer on June 30 after passing a state budget.

“Sen. McIlhinney's legislation is another important step in giving Pennsylvanians what they want: choice and convenience,” Gov. Tom Corbett said. The governor said he believes the Legislature will put a privatization bill on his desk by the 30th.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, said he's concerned about constituents having access to liquor in rural areas if state stores close.

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

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