Bill to abolish Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board may arrive next week, but lawmakers won't be around to see it

Posted: July 09, 2011

HARRISBURG - The Liquor Control Board is dead. Or so House Majority Leader Mike Turzai wants to proclaim soon.

Next week, at long last, Turzai plans to unveil a sweeping bill to kill off the state liquor system, which has been in place since the Great Depression, and replace it with private enterprise.

Although details such as how to keep small retailers from being shut out by chains remain unresolved, the plan already is drawing fire from Democrats and unionists who say the current system works and provides a steady stream of state revenue.

Turzai says - and has said for some time - that the government has no business selling alcohol. But his party now controls both houses plus the governor's office. And Gov. Corbett favors privatizing.

Turzai advocates auctioning hundreds of wholesale and retail store licenses while revamping the tax structure to ensure that the state continues to profit from sales. He has estimated that the licenses could fetch as much as $2 billion, but opponents say an auction would draw far less.

"The numbers just don't add up," said State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.). Neither will the votes, he predicted, saying he did not think Turzai could garner enough support, even in a Republican-controlled Capitol statehouse, to push privatization through.

In any case, lawmakers are on their summer break, so no votes will be taken until September at the earliest.

The State Store system has been in place since 1933, when Prohibition ended. Republicans have been trying for three decades to privatize the stores but have found too little traction to override fierce opposition not only from Democrats and unions, but from social conservatives who warn against the moral consequences of loosening state control of alcohol.

Corbett, the latest Republican governor to back this cause, has commissioned the Philadelphia consulting firm PFM to study the benefits and drawbacks of turning over wine and spirits sales to private retailers. PFM's report is due later this month.

Evans, who opposes privatizing, said no one had made a compelling argument for scrapping the current system. That system, he said, kicks tens of millions into state coffers, provides good-paying, "family-sustaining" jobs, and ensures that liquor is sold responsibly.

LCB officials have consistently said that the State Stores provide excellent service and selection, as well as competitive prices. They also tout the agency's mission to sell liquor responsibly.

Last week, board officials announced that they had a banner year, with sales for fiscal 2010-11 setting a record at nearly $2 billion. That allowed the agency to transfer a record $496 million to the state treasury.

Turzai spokesman Steve Miskin said the proposal would include changes in the tax structure to assure that converting to private hands would not wind up increasing the the cost to customers. He said details of the tax plan were being worked out and would be released next week.

"It's going to be beneficial to the consumer in terms of prices, selection, location, and convenience, because the marketplace is going to decide," Miskin said.

Wendell W. Young 4th, president of Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, contended that Turzai is introducing his bill in the dead of summer, with the legislature on its break, so he can say he did something, then walk away without having to bring the bill to a vote - and can use the issue as fund-raising bait.

"He drops the bill now in a recess period, and then he uses it to raise money all summer long," said Young, whose union represents most of the state's 3,500 liquor store clerks. "He can't get criticized for not getting a vote on the bill; they're not here to vote. It's an old game in Harrisburg. Time-tested."

Nonsense, said Miskin. "We didn't want to do this in the middle of the budget debate," which ended June 30, he said. "It's not like we've kept this idea a secret. This has been a priority of the majority leader, and it's been a priority of the governor."


Contact reporter Tracie Mauriello at 717-787-2141 or tmauriello@post-gazette.com. Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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