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Lots of holes in Senate liquor hearing arguments

| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

HARRISBURG

The first Senate hearing on liquor privatization last week was a farce.

It was stacked mostly with witnesses who testified that crime will soar if Pennsylvania closes the state stores and alcoholism will increase. Underage drinking will rise and more drunken drivers will die on highways, they suggested.

It was a very scary picture presented to the Senate Law and Justice Committee, chaired by Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks County, who has largely lined up against selling the state stores until a recent comment stunningly suggested otherwise. He's been all over the map. Last year, he filed legislation to keep the state stores open through “modernization.”

It was such a frightening scenario from witnesses that one wonders how 48 other states with some form of private sales continue to exist. There must be chaos and mayhem in the streets every day.

What was insulting was the lack of any reasonable effort to balance the scales.

Gov. Tom Corbett is the leading proponent of selling the state stores. But he was not invited. The Republican governor's aides offered to testify before the GOP-controlled Senate. They were ignored.

The governor's office will testify in the third and final hearing in June, McIlhinney said.

If McIlhinney would have invited State Police Col. Frank Noonan, the commander appointed by Corbett, he would have heard that there is no way to accurately claim that crime relates to the degree of liquor privatization.

In an open letter to all senators, David Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association, said the lineup of critics at the hearing “seems intended to generate ill will toward privatization because of so-called ‘social impacts.' ”

McIlhinney denied any motivation to stack the deck. But that's what he did.

“You saw a little bit more on the critical side” because of the issues addressed, he acknowledged.

The next hearing will focus on retailers, he said. That means beer distributors talking about what a raw deal they'll get despite a House bill that would give them up to a year to decide whether to buy a license to sell liquor and wine. There's no question some distributors will have to decide whether it is worth the cost of expansion. But the value of some distributor licenses would soar under the House bill.

The bill, which already dilutes Corbett's original proposal, was still a significant step forward.

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said there's not much support in the Senate for the House bill.

I wonder, if at the next hearing for retailers, McIlhinney would dare invite Kevin Shivers, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Pennsylvania. He calls Pennsylvania's system a “Soviet-style liquor system.”

Here's the conclusion I draw from McIlhinney's one-sided hearing, a drama funded by state taxpayers: We are, somehow, safer with state employees at 600-plus stores selling us bottles of wine and liquor.

Uh-huh.

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

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