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Liquor privatization group plans 'happy hour' events in Western Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, May 3, 2017, 4:51 p.m.

It's typically unwise to mix booze and political discussion, but a conservative advocacy group is planning that for a series of “happy hour” events across the state.

Americans for Prosperity, an organization funded by industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, will host the events at wineries, breweries and other establishments to build support for House-approved liquor privatization legislation.

The organization kicked off its advocacy campaign Wednesday in Hershey. Events are planned for Westmoreland, Allegheny and Erie counties but haven't been scheduled, organizers say.

Beth Anne Mumford, AFP's director in Pennsylvania, said the amount the group plans to spend on the campaign will be in the low-six-figure range, which will cover costs of the happy hour events, digital ads, a website and direct mail pieces. Volunteers will make phone calls and knock on doors.

She said the group will pick up the happy hour tab for food and one drink per attendee. Discussions will focus on privatization and how it relates to the state's budget.

Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents thousands of state liquor store workers, criticized the AFP campaign for hosting “happy-but-stupid parties.”

“They're going to invite people into these venues, hand them food and drink, and give them one-sided information,” Young said. “I'm proud to say that's not the way we do things.”

Young said UFCW supports more legislative hearings on the proposals so the public can hear information from both sides.

Various proposals have been floating around Harrisburg over the past several years amid renewed privatization efforts.

Last week, a divided state House approved four competing proposals to make changes to the state's liquor laws, including a spirits “to-go” permit, licenses for private “franchise” retail outlets and a “free the wine” bill to expand wine outlets.

However, the Senate's enthusiasm for the bills has been lackluster. AFP is hoping to generate grass-roots support in certain state Senate districts for removing the state from the wine and hard liquor market. Gov. Tom Wolf doesn't support the bills.

“Our overall goal is less government and more freedom. (Liquor privatization is) an issue that represents that,” Mumford said. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has controlled the sale of wine and hard liquor since the end of Prohibition.

Young and his union's allies in the House said the most recent House bills would jeopardize the jobs of roughly 5,000 workers under the PLCB.

AFP, which also advocates for limits on collective bargaining for public sector unions, said it would support state funding to help state workers displaced by privatization.

Young said the state could be on the hook for millions of dollars in transition costs for displaced workers impacted by privatization.

Kevin Zwick is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2856, or on Twitter @kevinjzwick.

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