Pennsylvania GOP tries new private liquor sales proposal
HARRISBURG — Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Tom Corbett are quietly working on a plan to expand private alcohol sales, and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi expressed hope that lawmakers will send a bill to Corbett's desk early this year.
“They are all talking and working on this,” said Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai of Marshall, the key proponent in the legislature.
Presumed dead or at least dormant by many political analysts after a major push for privatization stalled in June, some lawmakers are bullish on reaching a historic agreement to eventually end Pennsylvania's status as the only state other than Utah to control retail and wholesale sale of wine and spirits.
Pileggi of Delaware County acknowledged “ongoing discussions with the House and Governor's Office about making significant improvements to how alcohol is sold in Pennsylvania,” and said he hopes to “reach agreement on these issues so a bill can be sent to the governor's desk early in 2014.”
“The governor's position hasn't changed: the state should not be in the business of selling alcohol,” said Corbett's spokesman, Jay Pagni. “If, in fact, there is a renewed effort, the governor will be continuing to work with the legislature.”
It's unclear what the proposed system would look like. Legislative staffers say it's likely to be a hybrid that expands private sales and at least begins to scale back the 600 state-owned wine and liquor stores.
Wendell W. Young IV, president and CEO of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents state store clerks, called the optimism “lots of New Year's cheer.” He attributed it to “giddiness around the holidays.” The chief opponent of state store divestiture, Young said even if lawmakers approved a plan on Tuesday when their session resumes, it wouldn't produce revenue for the 2014-15 budget that has a revenue shortfall of more than $1 billion.
Instead, lawmakers should look at “modernization” plans such as expanding Sunday sales to increase revenue for the Treasury, Young said. Selling state stores would risk hundreds of millions in profit that the Liquor Control Board turns over to the state, he said.
Proponents argue that expanded sales will increase tax revenue and state profits.
“If crafted well, it would be a good money generator … and jobs bill,” Miskin said.
Corbett, a Shaler Republican, campaigned for governor in 2010 pledging to sell the state store system. He faces re-election in November with anemic poll numbers. To date, one of his three 2012 priorities, transportation funding, has become law. Liquor and pension law reform remain on hold.
When liquor privatization was unofficially coupled with transportation needs in June, neither bill passed. Lawmakers reached agreement on a $2.4 billion transportation plan in October, which will raise gasoline prices at the pumps.
Half of the 50 Senate seats and 203 House seats are on the ballot. Young said he can't imagine lawmakers putting people out of work in an election year. State stores employ about 3,000 people.
Corbett last January proposed an extensive plan: allowing grocery stores to sell wine and beer and enabling consumers to pick up a six-pack of beer in convenience stores.
The House in March approved allowing food markets to sell wine and giving beer distributors with enhanced licenses the first crack at 1,200 wine and spirits licenses.
In June, the Senate approved an amendment allowing distributors to sell wine and liquor in addition to beer. Food markets with “R” (restaurant) licenses could sell wine and beer. The legislation would eliminate a prohibition on selling beer near gas pumps.
Some House Republicans criticized the plan, saying it failed to end the state's liquor monopoly. Lawmakers did not vote on the overall bill with that amendment before their summer recess.
Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Pileggi, said the Senate's likely starting point is the amendment, “but we understand changes would likely be necessary.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.