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Liquor proposal ripped in hearing

| Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 11:31 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Thousands of people would lose their jobs and consumers would have less selection and pay higher prices for beer under liquor privatization proposals, an association for beer distributors told a Senate panel on Tuesday.

Officials from the Malt Beverage Distributors Association outlined a grim future for beer distributors during testimony before the Senate Law and Justice Committee. The committee conducted the second of three hearings on H.B. 790, a sweeping privatization bill approved by the state House in March.

The bill by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, would phase out the state's 600 wine and liquor stores and issue 1,200 wine and spirits licenses. Under the bill, grocery stores could sell wine, and beer distributors could buy licenses enabling them to sell wine and liquor. They would be the “sole outlets” selling all three, said Turzai spokesman Stephen Miskin. Convenience stores, by obtaining a restaurant license to seat 30 people, could sell two six-packs of beer.

Grocery stores with a so-called “R” license now can sell beer at separate registers.

The legislation will “crush our livelihoods and that of our 12,000 employees,” said Mark Tanczos, president of the association.

While beer may be available in more locations under the legislation, Tanczos said, “there will be less selection, higher prices and in the final analysis, less ‘real convenience' for consumers.”

But not all beer distributors agree.

“A lot of the beer distributors, if they did know what was going on, I think a lot of them would be in favor of this,” John Karinch, a Lebanon County distributor, said.

“The way (the bill) evolved through the House, and the way it was passed in the House is one of the greatest opportunities I could ever hope for,” said Mike Ridinger, owner of Joe Beer in Edinboro told the Tribune-Review. “It gives me the opportunity to sell six-packs, 12-packs and not have to compete against the likes of Wal-Mart but gives me the opportunity to buy that wine and spirits license so we can be a one-stop shop.”

Cheryl Umberger, owner of Wet Your Whistle beer distributorship in Lebanon County, said she offered to testify but was not given the opportunity.

“What we know is that just saying ‘No' and trying to kill this bill and trying to keep things the same is no longer the answer,” Umberger said. “We can die a slow death, or we can have a voice in the change that's going to happen.”

After the hearing, Gov. Tom Corbett, a leading privatization proponent, issued a statement saying, “As we've seen in other states, a private system will unleash the full job-creating potential of the free market. If we are to gain the advantage of greater consumer choice and greater convenience, we must not do it halfway.”

Miskin objected to characterizations by the distributors association.

“If only facts are looked at, it could not be denied, jobs will be created under House Bill 790 and state and local revenues will grow,” he said.

Miskin claims the bill helps beer distributors continue to be viable in the years to come. For instance, beer distributors “are also granted the ability to pay for the new licenses in monthly installments over a period of 4 years,” he said “All of these provisions were put into place to help the local beer distributors who have followed the law for years.”

N.J. “Sky” Cooper, owner and chief executive of the Charles Jacquin Liquor Co. in Philadelphia, testified the idea that “private industry can do things better is not necessarily valid.”

“If private is important versus public, let's bring Google in to run the state of Pennsylvania,” Cooper said.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com. Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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