Pennsylvania Senate negotiations of legislation to expand sales of beer, wine intensify
HARRISBURG — With a little more than two weeks before state lawmakers might call it quits until September, Senate leaders behind closed doors are negotiating legislation to allow sales of beer and wine in convenience stores and grocery stores while keeping the 600-plus state-run liquor stores in business.
Pennsylvania would maintain control of wholesale and retail sales of liquor and wine under Senate plans and remain, with Utah, the only states to do so.
An aggressive House-passed privatization proposal approved in March 2013 languished in the Senate.
The House bill by Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, would phase out state stores and allow wine and beer sales in grocery stores with restaurant licenses. Beer distributors would get first crack at 1,200 licenses for one-stop shopping of beer, wine and liquor.
The deliberations are happening as the June 30 deadline for a state budget creeps closer. The weeks leading up to passage typically are the height of legislative activity.
The state faces a $1.5 billion budget deficit.
House Bill 790 would raise hundreds of millions of dollars. The Senate, in considering beer and wine legislation, is “focused on customer convenience,” not revenue, said Erik Arneson, a Senate Republican spokesman.
None of this makes sense to Richard Razewski, 74, of White Oak, who thinks it's “time for our legislators to privatize the antiquated state stores and get into the 21st century.” Razewski said he would love to see Pennsylvanians “have the same rights as 48 other states.”
“I want to see the liquor stores disappear,” said Razewski, a retired salesman. “Why do we even need state stores?”
Razewski attributes the inability to unload the state liquor stores to the power of unions, which represent 3,500 store clerks. He doesn't consider himself anti-union, having worked as a union member for 15 years in a steel mill.
Senators considered proposals, differing in details, with the hope of winning a Senate Appropriations Committee vote to move legislation forward. But the bill was never called for a vote. Essentially, it would allow gas stations and convenience stores to sell beer, and many grocery stores to sell wine and beer.
The Appropriations Committee is not scheduled to consider amendments to HB 790 on Monday.
“I don't think there's the votes for it in our (Republican) caucus,” said Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, who worries about hurting beer distributors' business. Folmer said he's bothered by those supporting expanded alcohol sales while opposing his legislation to legalize medical marijuana.
But Arneson believes “there's a shot” at moving the liquor bill through the Senate.
Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Altoona, favors selling the state stores but is willing to live with less.
“I think we're very, very close on some of these issues,” Eichelberger said.
If the measure gets through the Senate, its fate remains uncertain on its return to the House.
“We will consider anything from the Senate,” said Stephen Miskin, a Turzai spokesman. “The question is: Are the votes there in the House for that (Senate plan)? We voted for full privatization. We think that's the best way to go.”
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has said he wants lawmakers to enact pension and liquor reform “before he'll consider anything else,” including a budget, according to his spokesman Jay Pagni.
Pagni declined to say what type of liquor reform Corbett must see.
“There are several proposals in play,” Pagni said. “The governor is looking for consumer convenience.”
Corbett in early 2013 offered a full-scale privatization plan.
The issue has moved further under Corbett than it has in any administration, Pagni said. Former Republican Govs. Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburgh supported closing the state stores but could not move the idea through the Legislature.
Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, believes Senate Democrats will remain united against the Senate GOP wine-and-beer plan. Senate Democrats long have supported “modernization” of existing state stores to increase revenue through flexible pricing and expanded hours. Some of those provisions are in the Republican proposals.
Urban and rural senators have some concerns about alcohol sales at gas stations, which might cause neighborhood problems, Ferlo said.
The Republican plan to expand alcohol sales is “the beginning of the end of the state store system,” Ferlo said.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.