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Lack of decorum in final Senate booze hearing

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Saturday, June 8, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG

From a political standpoint, the third and final meeting of the Senate Law and Justice Committee on liquor privatization last week was unlike any committee hearing I've seen in more than three decades.

After two earlier stacked hearings, with virtually all testimony lining up against selling the state stores, the third hearing was again weighted against privatization, save for the appearance of Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley and senior members of the Corbett administration. This was supposed to be the chance for Corbett's team to come and tell its story.

Gov. Tom Corbett is spearheading the effort to privatize the sale of liquor and wine and make beer purchases more convenient. Corbett's a Republican. The Senate committee is controlled by Republicans. One would think there'd be some degree of cooperation. Instead, Cawley and his panel, including Col. Frank Noonan, commissioner of the state police, and Secretary of Health Michael Wolf, were verbally thrashed by Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, the ranking Democrat.

Now, Chairman Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, can't control Ferlo. No one can. Yet I have seen numerous committee chairmen, in an effort to protect members of their own party or purely for the sake of decorum, pour cold water on such attacks. A stern word here or there often works. Some chairmen right off make it clear questions and statements will deal only with facts and interpretation of facts. Stick to the issues (rather than a charge by Ferlo, for instance, that Wolf isn't qualified to be secretary of Health in the first place).

The fact that yellow-shirted state store clerks took up approximately 80 percent of the committee room's seats was problematic in terms of running a fair hearing. They cheered wildly for Ferlo and, not surprisingly, hooted and jeered at Cawley.

It was laughable that McIlhinney at one point said he would not tolerate any outbursts from the crowd. By then, five or six outbursts had occurred. The damage was done.

Also, the protocol at virtually every hearing I've attended is for lawmakers sponsoring a bill, or the administration's top representative, to testify first. Cawley was slated last. He wound up going next to last due to a scheduling issue.

Putting him in the caboose appeared to be a slap at Corbett's privatization plan as well.

If you gathered by now that the committee members, and maybe the Republican Caucus, have no love for Corbett's idea of broad-scale privatization, you'd be right. This was a negotiating stance by McIlhinney, who's putting a plan together he hopes can garner 26 votes. At most, look for a watered-down version of privatization with more “modernization” of the existing 600 state stores.

It's not unusual for one chamber to send a message to another — in this case the House, which approved a privatization bill in March, or to the governor. And that message was sent loud and clear.

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

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