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What will Corbett have to give up in liquor talks?

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Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

HARRSBURG

If there is a compromise on liquor privatization, it likely will emerge from House-Senate negotiations in June as a “hybrid” plan.

A plan creating more private opportunities while maintaining some semblance of the state store system (the hybrid) might gather the most support, House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, predicted in January.

Last week, the House approved a bill that would phase out 600 state-owned liquor stores and allow grocery stores to sell wine, and beer distributors to also sell wine and liquor. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi told reporters that there's considerable support in the Senate GOP Caucus for “modernizing” the state stores rather than privatization. That means keeping them.

The issue is important politically to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who faces re-election next year. He's balanced two difficult budgets on time. But there's no notch on his belt that is an attention-getter like selling the state stores. The liquor bill is “a game changer,” said Rep. John Lawrence, R-Chester County.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, has worked for two years to get it through.

In January, Corbett and Turzai proposed eliminating the state stores and creating 1,200 private retail outlets. The plan was watered down by the House Liquor Committee in an effort to get a bill that could pass. The stores would gradually be phased out. There's no $1 billion pool of block grants for school districts.

But for what? To die in the Senate? Perhaps Pileggi's “modernization” comment is a negotiating position.

Sen. Randy Vulokavich, a Shaler Republican and Corbett's state senator, supports privatization. He agrees the talk among Senate Republicans tends to be modernization. That means giving the state stores more businesslike opportunities such as flexible pricing and broader Sunday sales.

Vulokavich thinks the compromise will be keeping the state stores intact, but allowing wine and beer in grocery stores. On one hand, that seems like a waste — keeping the state-paid bureaucracy in place — while allowing private sales. It might, however, be the only politically acceptable version of privatization/modernization.

And even that may come at a price. There's a lot of speculation that Corbett and Turzai will have to give something up to get something they could call “privatization.” The smart money is on transportation funding, which the Senate wants. Pileggi says he doesn't want to link the issues.

“There's no linkage with other issues,” Turzai said.

Another scenario — if Corbett agrees to Medicaid expansion, the Senate might approve liquor. Again, just hallway talk, but a lot of senators want the expansion through ObamaCare. Corbett thus far has resisted, saying it would obligate Pennsylvania taxpayers long-term to paying billions more.

Transportation is the more likely trade.

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

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