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Pennsylvania House liquor vote could be game-changer

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
The Scranton Times-Tribune

HARRISBURG

When you hear lawmakers say they want to “modernize” the state liquor system and provide some minimal expansion into private markets, what many are actually saying is they oppose the full privatization favored by Gov. Tom Corbett.

Some hard-core opponents will say flat out that they do oppose it. But many legislators don't want to say they are “against” selling the state stores because poll after poll shows it is enormously popular with the public.

Pennsylvania and Utah are the only states with state-controlled wholesale and retail operations.

The state store system is a vestige of Prohibition, when government still wanted to curb alcohol consumption.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, was tenacious in pushing a divestiture bill last year. Behind-the-scenes efforts to round up the needed votes fell short. It was not brought to a vote on the House floor.

This year, with the introduction of a Corbett-backed plan to shut down the state stores, auction 1,200 retail licenses, raise $1 billion and send that money to school districts as block grants, the political landscape might be different.

It now seems there is a decent chance to get Corbett's legislation through the Republican-controlled House.

House Liquor Control Committee Chairman John Taylor, R-Philadelphia — who at best was lukewarm on privatization last year — appeared at two recent Corbett events on liquor. Taylor is committed to reporting out a bill that can win House and Senate approval, a House GOP spokesman said.

It might not look exactly like Corbett's plan. This is a far cry from saying House approval is in the bag. But it is looking up for privatization proponents. Having a governor out front makes a difference.

The real obstacle is the Senate, where some Senate Republican leaders like the idea of “modernizing” the LCB while moving very gradually toward divestiture. A “hybrid” plan is getting some attention. It keeps the LCB and dabbles in privatization by allowing limited wine and spirits licenses at facilities already licensed by the LCB.

The Senate looks like unfriendly territory for liquor privatization. Corbett has some GOP supporters. But leadership controls the flow of legislation. If, however, the House approves a liquor divestiture plan, it will be a very big deal that would change the dynamic in the Senate.

The Republican-controlled Senate would be almost obligated to give a bill, backed by the governor and approved by the House, a shot.

Senate leaders have said they will consider anything sent by the House. (Translation: We're not doing it first.) The idea of “modernizing” until privatization occurs might be worthy of debate as a Plan B. After all, it's been three decades that Republican governors have been trying to sell the state stores.

Continuing to improve the state stores would only have the effect of putting off privatization. But it's starting to feel like state stores might finally be on the way out.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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