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State stores' privatization faces old foe in employees union

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Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

HARRISBURG — The political landscape is far different for Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed liquor privatization plan from what it was when then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh started an effort in 1983.

In some ways, the outlook improved for privatization: Social conservatives, who formed part of an unofficial coalition with unions to block Thornburgh's effort, have been quiet. Another key opponent, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is no longer fighting state battles such as this, national spokesman J.T. Griffin said.

Although some pillars of opposition might be missing, Thornburgh said in looking back, “By and large, the most powerful group is the union.”

The union leader who worked against Thornburgh's plan was the late Wendell W. Young III. His son, Wendell W. Young IV, eventually led the charge against then-Republican Gov. Tom Ridge's effort in the 1990s and now is the fiery leader of the same union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, opposing Corbett.

Jerry Shuster, a professor of political rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh, said it's still probably 60-40 against privatization's passing.

“I think (the climate) may be better,” Shuster said. “I don't know that that translates into success for the Corbett administration. It's a hard sell from a very unpopular governor.”

Corbett mustered a 36 percent approval rating in a Quinnipiac University poll this week. That's the lowest for any governor at midterm in modern history, analyst G. Terry Madonna said.

“If it were easy, it would have been done a long time ago,” said Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley. “He believes Pennsylvanians should have choice and convenience.”

The governor does not govern by polls, Harley said.

Corbett, like Thornburgh a Republican, on Wednesday presented a plan to break up the state's wholesale and retail monopoly by selling 619 state-owned stores. Instead, 1,200 wine and liquor licenses would be available to private businesses. Big-box stores, pharmacies and groceries could sell beer and wine.

Beer distributors, now limited to selling cases, also could sell wine and six-packs. Wine and spirits stores would handle liquor. In all, the plan could raise $1 billion, which Corbett would use for block grants to school districts over four years.

“The more traditional role that morals play in liquor-related decisions aren't nearly as common as they once were,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “I really don't think there is a strong push from the groups concerned with issues like drunk driving (and) underage drinking to play a pivotal role in this decision.

“While the state store employee union is about as strong as it ever was, broader support from labor interests in the state might not be as powerful an ally to that group,” Borick said.

Union membership is down. “That makes that voice from labor, especially for some Republican legislators who had positive relationships with labor, not what it once was.”

Young, the brash and articulate leader whose union represents 3,500 state store clerks, said Corbett must combat fractured Republican support. Although more than a dozen GOP House members accompanied Corbett when he outlined his plan in Pittsburgh, there were no GOP senators.

“They don't sound exactly enthusiastic” in the Senate Republican Caucus, said Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

The Senate's top elected Republican, Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County, said on the day before Corbett's news conference that he does not like issues tied together in “Washington-style politics,” and he believes the Liquor Control Board can produce up to $100 million more a year in state revenue with continued “modernization,” including Sunday sales. That means keeping the stores.

Young's members, dressed in orange shirts, carpet the Capitol whenever a hearing or event comes up on privatization.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, who supports Corbett's plan, failed to get the votes for his plan last year.

Corbett is taking on “one of the most powerful special-interest groups in the Capitol,” Harley said.

The good news for Corbett is he expanded the proposal beyond Thornburgh's by including beer sales, said Jack Treadway, retired chairman of the political science department at Kutztown University.

That's also the bad news. Adding beer draws support in some areas and fuels opposition in others, he said.

“The big operators like Wal-Mart and the others love it,” Treadway said. Smaller stores think they won't be able to compete, he said.

Treadway believes Corbett would have had a better shot in starting the effort in January 2011 when he took office. Now “he doesn't have a whole lot of political capital,” he said.

Harley said Corbett's first task was to deal with a $4.2 billion deficit.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or writer Kari Andren contributed to this report.

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