Pa. House opens debate on liquor privatization

Posted: June 12, 2012

HARRISBURG — The state House of Representatives began debate Monday night on a liquor privatization bill, setting the stage for a historic vote on whether to get Pennsylvania out of the business of selling wine and liquor.

The House debated for three hours whether to give preliminary approval to a revamped plan to sell off the state's 600-plus Wine and Spirits Stores. The chamber is expected to resume discussion on the bill Tuesday.

The new proposal comes with a twist: Not only would it privatize wine and liquor sales, it would also change the way beer, already a privately run industry, is sold in Pennsylvania.

"You have to decide — are you for the consumers and moving Pennsylvania into the 21st century," the sponsor of the bill, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), asked his colleagues, "or are you against it?

“This is about moving Pennsylvania out of an area it does not need to be in and focus instead on those core functions that we do best."

The plan championed by Turzai calls for privatizing both the retail and wholesale ends of the business. On the retail side, it would issue 1,600 licenses, the first 1,050 of which would be offered to beer distributors, who under current law can sell only beer, and only by the case or keg.

The remaining licenses would be auctioned off, county by county, to the highest bidders.

The plan also would, for the first time, let beer distributors sell six-packs — or any other configuration, such as an 18-pack — with no limit on the number of packages sold in a single transaction. As it stands now, consumers can only buy six-packs at bars, delis, or taverns, usually at a steep markup and no more than two at a time.

Despite public support and the backing of Gov. Corbett, the bill faces an uphill battle. Critics include those in the legislature who say alcohol should be tightly controlled and union supporters who worry that LCB employees will lose good-paying jobs.

Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) said there was a public-safety benefit to the LCB's control of the liquor system: It's the agency's job, he said, to ensure that liquor is sold responsibly.

Evans argued that the LCB had done much over the last five years to modernize its stores and operations.

"No one in this state has a problem getting a drink," Evans said.

The battle over privatization was on display outside legislative chambers as well. Roaming the Capitol's halls were folks from well-heeled lobbyists to LCB union members wearing bright yellow shirts emblazoned with the message: "I won't drink to the Turzai tax."

Even if Turzai's bill gets enough votes to pass the House, its future is uncertain.

Early in the day, Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) effectively and officially volleyed the issue to this autumn when he sent out this tweet to his 840 followers: "Looking forward to working on Rep. Turzai's comprehensive privatization proposal in the fall."

And Corbett, a staunch privatization supporter, all but said the issue was not on his front burner at the moment.

The priority, he said, is negotiating a deal with the legislature for a budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

"Right now," he said, "I'm focused on getting this budget done."

Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk

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