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Variety of groups inject money into fight over privatizing liquor sales

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Thursday, May 2, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Convenience stores, business advocates and political groups are jockeying for state lawmakers' votes on privatization of liquor sales in Pennsylvania with specialty websites, TV ads and face-to-face meetings.

The Senate Law and Justice Committee held its first of three hearings on Tuesday on the decades-long fight.

Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a privatization proponent, is airing a TV ad in southeastern Pennsylvania targeting Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks County, who chairs the committee considering privatization.

The ad claims McIlhinney is “siding with union bosses who want to keep taxpayers footing the bill for Pennsylvania's broken government-run liquor store system.”

McIlhinney has said the ad mischaracterized his position and that he's not opposed to privatization.

Other groups looking to influence lawmakers are waging a war of information with studies, statistics and personal anecdotes.

“We are running a 50-senator strategy,” said Kevin Shivers, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “We are not leaving any vote to chance in the state Senate.”

Shivers said he's lining up meetings with senators to make the case that small businesses, or “Main Street,” could do a better job selling wine and spirits.

His group recently filmed a video for its “Main Street Does it Better” campaign that surveyed private liquor store parking lots in neighboring states and found a majority of shoppers there were Pennsylvanians.

Stan Sheetz, president of Sheetz gas stations and convenience stores, said his company introduced the “Free My Beer” campaign a few years ago to give a voice to customers who want the ease of picking up a six-pack when they get gas.

He oversees the company's 440 stores in six states and can sell beer in five of the six, he said. Gas stations would gain the ability to sell beer under the liquor privatization bill approved by the state House.

Nate Benefield, director of policy analysis for the conservative Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation, said his group focuses on education.

Commonwealth Foundation studies are cited by many pro-privatization groups. Benefield said the group sends research to lawmakers, writes commentary pieces for news media and meets directly with legislators.

The group has begun, a website dedicated to privatization advocacy.

A host of lobbying firms across the state are representing clients on both sides.

The Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, which represents hundreds of beer distributors statewide, hired the lobbying firm Stevens & Lee of Reading, which employs David J. “Chip” Brightbill, the former Senate majority leader. The group hired Harrisburg-based Triad Strategies.

An association spokesman declined to discuss its strategies. The group came out against Gov. Tom Corbett's privatization proposal in February, arguing it was crafted to favor big-box retailers and ultimately would hurt family-owned distributors.

S. R. Wojdak and Associates, which has offices in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, was hired by Anheuser-Busch Companies and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, records show.

State police and other law enforcement officials testified Tuesday that more resources would be needed for professional law enforcement if liquor sales are privatized.

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or

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