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Corbett open to all state store bills to privatize liquor sales

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

GETTYSBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett said on Friday that he would not rule out alternative plans to privatize the state liquor system, boosting the prospects for passage in the General Assembly.

“I'll look at everything that comes across my desk,” said Corbett, a Shaler Republican. “I'd be foolish to say no.”

Asked whether he would consider a plan that has no date certain for closing state stores, Corbett said: “I would have an open ear to something like that, yes.”

In January, Corbett proposed selling the state's 619 liquor stores. He would allow beer and wine to be sold by 1,200 retailers in grocery markets, pharmacies and box stores. Beer distributors could purchase “enhanced licenses” to sell liquor and wine and beer by the six-pack, rather than only by the case.

Pennsylvanians should enjoy the convenience that 48 other state liquor systems provide, Corbett said. Utah and Pennsylvania state governments control retail and wholesale purchases.

Some lawmakers, including members of Corbett's party, are more interested in passing a “hybrid” plan that would keep state stores open but allow wine and beer sales in grocery stores. Philadelphia Republican Rep. John Taylor, chairman of the House Liquor Committee, floated such a plan recently. The committee will vote on privatization March 18.

Jack Treadway, former chairman of the political science department at Kutztown University, said Corbett's message may mean he is willing to compromise because he does not have enough votes for his full-privatization plan, which House Majority Leader Mike Turzai introduced as a bill.

It increases chances for passage, “but that doesn't mean it will pass,” Treadway said.

The Republican Party is not unified on the issue, Treadway said, noting a “watered-down plan” might have a shot in the Senate.

Corbett made it clear he wants his plan enacted, saying the state would use the revenue to provide block grants of $1 billion to Pennsylvania school districts over four years.

Corbett released a breakdown of the four-year total slated for school districts, including: city of Pittsburgh, $13.2 million; North Hills, $1.7 million; McKeesport, $3.5 million; Kiski, $2.6 million; Hempfield, $2.9 million; and Greensburg Salem, $1.8 million. The formula is based on enrollment, population and district wealth.

Questioned by reporters, Corbett on several occasions did not rule out alternative or hybrid privatization plans.

Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said this week that he expects lawmakers to modify the legislation he introduced.

“I think (Corbett) is being realistic,” said G. Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College. “If anything passes — and it is still an if — it is likely to be a hybrid.”

Turzai's bill faces staunch opposition from the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 3,500 state store clerks. That union opposition kept former Republican Govs. Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburgh from getting lawmakers to pass similar privatization proposals.

The bill includes tax credits and civil service preferences for people who would be laid off from state stores.

Madonna said if a bill passes that allows even limited private retail sales, “it opens the door and provides for greater expansion down the road.”

Turzai has said he thinks selling liquor in the private market eventually would put state-owned stores out of business.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media'sstate Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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