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Pa. Senate approves 'historic' measure expanding private alcohol sales

A Republican senator’s proposal to sell the state stores gives the issue a critical component it lacked: a Senate voice for a bill driven by House Republicans, supporters say.

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Saturday, June 29, 2013, 12:36 a.m.
 

HARRISBURG — The Senate early Saturday morning approved legislation expanding private sales of wine and liquor in Pennsylvania.

The proposed amendment, approved 27-23, would bring “historic changes,” to the sale of alcohol, said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County. Further votes are required in the Senate Appropriations Committee and again on the Senate floor — probably later Saturday.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, a leading proponent, called the Senate vote “an important step toward bringing consumer choice and convenience to the people of Pennsylvania.” Corbett said he looks forward to final passage and working with both chambers to pass “real reform” for Pennsylvanians.

Pennsylvania and Utah currently are the only two states with state-controlled wholesale and retail systems. Pennsylvania now sells almost all wine and liquor from more than 600 state-owned stores.

Supporters say the expansion provides the convenience demanded by consumers, while opponents claimed it will mean job losses and “social ills” from increased alcohol consumption.

“Booze on sale — in your community,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia. “I guess the idea is to inebriate everybody.”

“As we have worked to advance this bill, our focus has been on the consumer — the average Pennsylvanians who wants it to be more convenient to buy beer wine and spirits,” Pileggi said.

Under the proposed amendment, beer distributors would be able to sell wine and spirits, restaurants and taverns with “R” licenses could sell wine in addition to beer. Grocery stores of certain size and food sales could obtain “R” licenses. Also, the prohibition against selling alcohol near gas pumps would be eliminated.

Pennsylvania breweries would be able to sell at farmers markets.

Sen. Rob Teplitz, R-Dauphin County, said revenue from liquor remains a key issue.

“If we needed to design a system from scratch today, few people, including myself, would design the system we have now,” Teplitz said. “However, the current system has been in existence for almost a century and the hundreds of millions of dollars that it now generates each year has become a critical component of the state budget. No privatization plan has ever been able to replace those funds for the long term. That's why I support modernization rather than privatization.”

There's a formula for determining when state stores will be closed. When private outlets outnumber state store by a 2-1 margin in a county, the stores would need to be closed within six months. The LCB, however, could take convenience, price, the profitability of the stores and other factors into consideration when deciding whether to close them.

The LCB under the plan would be empowered to lease the wholesale system for 10 years. Two separate studies would be conducted to determine if the system is meeting consumer demand in each county.

“We're very upset,” said Wendell W. Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents state store clerks. “There's 5,000 people's jobs at stake.”

Young said he was not conceding defeat.

It appears this “was political horse trading having little to do with the issue itself,” Young said. It may be part of getting the House to moving a transportation bill, which leaders have been reluctant to do, he said.

“I'm saying it looks like that to me,” Young said.

If the bill gets through the Senate in final form, the House — which has been more aggressive on privatization — would have to OK it.

Kari Andren contributed to this report.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media and can be reached at 717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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