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TV ads target lawmaker for stand on liquor privatization

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 11:51 p.m.

HARRISBURG – A conservative group headed by a former Republican lawmaker on Wednesday began running hard-hitting TV ads against a key GOP senator widely perceived as unenthusiastic about liquor store privatization.

Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, chaired by former state Rep. John Kennedy of Camp Hill, claims Bucks County Sen. Chuck McIlhinney is “siding with union bosses who want to keep taxpayers footing the bill for Pennsylvania's broken government-run liquor store system.”

McIlhinney, who chairs a Senate panel that begins holding hearings next week on liquor privatization, said in an interview his position has been mischaracterized. He charged that the alliance represents “lobbyists for large corporate interests trying to get their special interests into the bill.” He said he is not an opponent of privatization or a proponent of keeping the 600-plus state stores open.

Leo Knepper, executive director of the alliance, said none of its donors would benefit from privatization and most are “small businesses and entrepreneurs.” He calls McIlhinney's positions on liquor “squishy.”

The flare-up over the ad comes at a critical point in the debate over liquor reform, a key issue for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Last month, the state House approved a scaled-down version of Corbett's plan that would phase out the state stores, allow grocery stores to sell wine and give beer distributors the first crack at selling liquor and wine as well as beer.

Pennsylvania and Utah are the only two states controlling both wholesale and retail sale of liquor and wine.

McIlhinney and other Senate Republican leaders are viewed as supporters of “modernization” of the state store system, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College. That typically means improving the existing system but not necessarily ruling out some privatization.

In February, McIlhinney touted a bill he was drafting that would keep the state stores but give hotels and restaurants more flexibility and allow beer distributors to sell beer in quantities less than a case of 24 bottles. McIlhinney had said the free market then would determine which state stores close. He noted the union representing state store clerks opposed his bill as well as the governor's. He filed a similar bill last year.

Knepper acknowledged McIlhinney “has never said ‘close the state stores.' He's said he wants them to ‘operate with more flexibility.' ” It's important, Knepper said, because McIlhinney's committee “has the first crack at watering this down.”

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for the Tribune-Review.

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