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Pennsylvania legislators advance alcohol, gambling measures

| Tuesday, April 18, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

Harrisburg lawmakers on Tuesday advanced legislation on two issues that could play key roles in budget talks later this spring: liquor and gambling.

In the House, a divided committee approved proposals that would move Pennsylvania toward a more privately run wine and hard alcohol system. Across the capitol, a Senate panel positioned a bill that could serve as a legislative vehicle for a larger gambling expansion plan.

Both issues could be bargaining chips as lawmakers and the governor hash out a budget for the next fiscal year.

The House Liquor Control Committee approved two proposals backed by House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall Township, that are aimed at further loosening the state's grip on wine and hard liquor sales.

One is a “free the wine” proposal that would remove the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board from wholesale transactions of wine and establish a wine wholesale permit for private licensed importers. It would expand the number of wine retail outlets, allow wine to be sold in supermarket aisles instead of a separate section, and increase quantities consumers can purchase, according to a co-sponsorship memo.

Another Turzai bill approved Tuesday would go further by removing the PLCB from the purchase and sale of wine and hard liquor, and establish a 10-year wholesale lease permit.

In a statement, Turzai framed his “free the wine” plan as a “compromise” proposal in light of Gov. Tom Wolf's pledge to veto a full privatization measure.

This year, the Liquor Control Committee has approved four competing Republican-crafted proposals: one establishing new franchise stores, a supermarket liquor “to-go” proposal and the two Turzai bills.

“The committee has passed four very different bills which have significant revenue which is necessary for the upcoming budget as well as moving Pennsylvania further out of the liquor business,” House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said. “At some point in the next couple weeks, we expect to send these bills to the Senate for their consideration.”

On Tuesday, one House Republican joined committee Democrats in opposing both measures.

Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins Township, ranking Democrat on the liquor committee, said it's too soon for the committee to move ahead with more changes to how alcohol is sold in the state given the passage of the sweeping Act 39 legislation last summer. It expanded wine sales to certain supermarkets.

Summing up the opposing argument expressed by the state liquor store clerks union, Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, said the Turzai proposal “is death by a thousand cuts for the current system.”

“We're killing a perfectly good system, where over 4,000 people have their jobs, and the vast majority of those jobs in the state system are family sustaining jobs,” Boyle said.

In the Senate, a committee that oversees the gambling industry approved a bill to allow tablet gaming in airport boarding areas of eight airports across the state, including the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity and Pittsburgh International Airport.

This legislation appears to be a placeholder that will be amended with a final gambling expansion package once an agreement is hammered out between Gov. Wolf and legislative leaders.

Wolf's 2017-18 budget plan proposed $150 million from gaming expansion, on top of the yet-to-be-raised $100 million earmarked from a gaming expansion in the current fiscal year. It didn't get into specifics on how the revenue would be generated.

Kevin Zwick is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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