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Pennsylvania liquor bill likely to be pulled over in Senate

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 1:42 p.m.

hARRISBURG, Pa. -- The confetti has been swept up and the empty champagne bottles cleared away. The hubbub of news releases, tweets and Facebook postings trumpeting the pros and cons of Pennsylvania's latest liquor privatization bill has culminated in its passage by the House.

In a nearly straight party-line vote, the Republican majority handed Gov. Tom Corbett a victory that he and his allies fought hard for, even though the bill differs radically from his original plan to auction off the 600 state liquor stores.

The compromise plan is designed to phase out the state-run stores county by county, as private operators - beer distributors only for the first year - and others buy at least 1,200 liquor and wine licenses. It also would allow grocery stores to sell wine.

GOP leaders fast-tracked the bill in the House, where privatization efforts collapsed last summer without reaching the floor. The Liquor Control Committee endorsed the compromise Monday and House passage on a 105-90 vote followed three days later - despite warnings from a united Democratic minority that the measure would put thousands of state store employees out of work and fail to generate the revenue that supporters anticipate.

Such speedy action is unlikely in the Senate.

For one thing, the Republican chairman of the Senate Law & Justice Committee, Sen. Charles McIlhinney, and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Jim Ferlo, have competing proposals that would keep the state stores open and preserve thousands of union-represented jobs.

McIlhinney, R-Bucks, has introduced a bill to expand the number of liquor and wine stores by making a license available to each individual or company that currently holds a hotel or restaurant liquor license. It also would establish a process that would make it possible for beer distributors to also be licensed to sell liquor and wine.

Ferlo, D-Allegheny, is seeking co-sponsors for a bill to allow distributors to sell beer in six-packs other quantities smaller than a case and allow direct wine shipments, more liberal state store hours and the opening of additional state stores.

Signaling expectations that the Senate would take a deliberative approach on the issue, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said hearings on the House bill would be held within 30 to 60 days. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said he anticipates Senate action sometime before the end of December.

"Clearly there's going to be a major debate in the Senate," said Scarnati, R-Jefferson, pointing out that Republican senators hold only a four-seat majority.

"We start in the Senate with 23 'no' votes from the Senate Democrats on any bill, so it's going to certainly take us some time to digest what the House sends us," he said.

Said Pileggi, "The House has been working on this issue for over two years. ... It's not something that's been an item of active interest and discussion in the Senate."

Faced with a sagging job-approval rating and more than a half-dozen potential Democratic challengers to his re-election in 2014, Corbett is pursuing an ambitious, three-pronged agenda as he enters the second half of his term.

He says ending the state's monopoly over the sale of liquor and wine will help pare state government to "core functions" like education and public safety. His legislative trinity also calls for cutting future pension benefits of state and school employees to reduce the cost to taxpayers and increasing gas-tax revenue to accelerate highway and bridge work.

Corbett has plugged the privatization proposal tirelessly, injecting it into speeches other topics. In remarks to a Pennsylvania Farm Bureau luncheon this week in downtown Harrisburg, he likened privatization to the colonial-era Whiskey Rebellion.

"It's time for another rebellion," he said.

In the Senate, "the governor will take this one step at a time," said his spokesman, Kevin Harley.

Pileggi, R-Delaware, said he expects no less.

"The governor has shown ... a great deal of flexibility and pragmatism" in negotiating details of the House bill, Pileggi said. "I would expect that he would continue to show that flexibility and pragmatism as the issue is considered in the Senate."

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