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Despite vow, governor faces same battles on LCB privatization

| Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Despite GOP control of the General Assembly and a Republican governor, a renewed pledge this week by Gov. Tom Corbett to privatize liquor sales in Pennsylvania could face some familiar obstacles, according to legislative leaders.

Instead, some lawmakers favor “modernizing” the existing system to increase revenue transferred each year from the state Liquor Control Board to state coffers.

During an interview this week, Corbett said the LCB's “time has come.”

“I don't give up. I keep coming back,” Corbett said. “If I don't get it this year, I'll keep going next year. If I don't get it next year, if I have a second term, we'll keep going.”

Corbett, a Republican, has pushed to turn wine and liquor sales over to the private sector since he ran for governor in 2010.

But neither the House nor the Senate has passed a privatization bill during this two-year legislative session.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, who sponsored privatization plans, said the fate of any proposal will rest with Corbett next session.

“I'm convinced you can get privatization accomplished with the governor out front,” Turzai said. “There's significant excitement among the citizens and among certain members (of the General Assembly) to move in this direction, but we're going to need the governor really to be out front and to lead the effort.”

But Wendell W. Young IV, chairman of United Food and Commercial Workers of Pennsylvania Wine and Spirits Council and an outspoken opponent of privatization, said he thinks Corbett faces an uphill battle. The union represents about 3,000 liquor store employees.

“I don't think there's a majority of legislators in both chambers that want to do it,” Young said.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, said his chamber will consider a privatization plan next session if the House approves a proposal.

“In the meantime, we shouldn't just be standing still with the state liquor system that we are responsible for operating as efficiently as we can,” Pileggi said. “There are a number of things we can do that the public certainly supports ... We should take those steps while this larger debate keeps moving on, if it does move on.”

Pileggi said there is support on both sides of the aisle for a number of LCB reforms the agency has termed “modernization,” including greater accessibility to wine and beer in supermarkets and direct shipment of wine to customers.

The LCB has said it could generate about $150 million annually for the state, compared with last year's roughly $83 million, if lawmakers approve a series of proposals aimed at making the agency run more like a traditional business.

Proposals include giving the LCB more flexibility in determining prices and what products go on sale, expanding Sunday store hours, selling lottery tickets and altering the way the agency awards contracts.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said Corbett and lawmakers ought to look at modernizing the LCB.

“We are in tough times; revenues are down,” Dermody said. “It makes no sense at this point to throw 5,000 (state store employees) out of work and deprive the commonwealth out of significant revenue.”

Young said that in meetings with lawmakers last summer, there was a sense — even among privatization supporters — that “while they are the caretakers, they ought to let the system operate the best it can.”

“More (members) tell me, including conservatives, they'd rather push the modernization package. It will generate more income,” Young said.

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com. Staff writer Mike Wereschagin contributed to this report.

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