At a Senate hearing yesterday, P.J. Stapleton, chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, acknowledged that the issue "sort of has come out of nowhere" when, in the last year, groceries struck on the idea of buying existing liquor licenses and applying for permission to sell beer.
The PLCB has already approved one such store, a Weis Markets store in the Poconos, which has been selling beer since Labor Day. The chain is seeking approval for a store in the Lehigh Valley, and, just yesterday, Wegmans filed an application to sell beer at a store near Scranton.
Sheetz Inc. has an application pending for a convenience store in Altoona.
Stapleton said the PLCB must approve such applications if the stores meet certain liquor-law requirements similar to those faced by delis and pizzerias that sell beer. Among other things, beer must be segregated from other grocery sales and checked out with separate registers, and the stores must sell food for in-store dining.
"Whether the liquor code intended to allow this, I'm not sure," said Stapleton. "Does the liquor code under very narrow and specific circumstances allow it to occur? I believe it does."
Rafferty's legislation would try to clamp close that loophole.
The prospect of buying beer at groceries means shoppers won't have to search for a bar for a six-pack or a distributor for a case, as has long been the law in Pennsylvania.
But Rafferty believes it could also lead to increased underage drinking. And he said he is concerned that many grocery store employees are high school students younger than 18 - the legal age to sell liquor and beer - and they may operate the registers. Though the liquor code prohibits it, he said there is no effective way to police that.
Rafferty said he is writing the legislation along with the ranking Democrat on the Law and Justice Committee, Sen. Sean Logan of Allegheny County, and plans to introduce it in about two weeks.
"There are loopholes in the law that we are looking to close," he said.
Rafferty made the comments to reporters yesterday after the last of two hearings focusing on the controversial creation of a chief executive officer position at the PLCB.
Former Sen. Joe Conti (R., Bucks) was hired in December to the $150,000 job at the urging of Gov. Rendell. Then-PLCB chairman Jonathan H. Newman strongly objected to the new post, questioning, among other things, whether it was needed and whether it usurped the powers of the board. Newman, who as chairman made about $65,572, resigned early this month over the issue.
Rafferty, who is upset that the board created the post without legislative approval, said yesterday he is considering drafting a bill to require that similar high-level jobs at state agencies first be endorsed by the House and Senate.
Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990