Push to privatize Pa. liquor losing steam?

Posted: June 14, 2012

HARRISBURG — The legislative pulse of a measure to privatize Pennsylvania's state-run liquor stores went as flat Tuesday as the head on a stale beer.

The House adjourned with no discussion, let alone a vote, on the much-talked-about proposal to get the state out of the wine and liquor business. This after debating the issue for more than three hours Monday, with the expectation that discussions would resume Tuesday — leaving many to question whether the measure was dying for lack of support.

The proposal's key sponsor, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), could not be reached for comment after the House adjourned. Earlier in the day, Turzai spokesman Steve Miskin insisted that the measure had enough votes to move forward.

"I would not declare privatization dead, just based on the fact that we know Mike Turzai and his energy levels and his commitment to this issue," said Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery).

But it was unclear late Tuesday whether the chamber would tackle the issue again this week, or even this month.

And the political climate inside the Capitol does not look promising for privatization as the clock winds down to the legislature's summer break. The agenda is increasingly dominated by negotiations on a state budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, along with related issues that threaten to push the liquor debate to the sidelines.

Even if Turzai's proposal squeaks through the House, another big hurdle awaits down the hall: the Senate, where President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) has signaled there will be no discussion on privatization until at least fall. And on Tuesday, Sen. Charles McIlhinney Jr. (R., Bucks) complicated the picture by announcing a separate bill to create a special license to increase the number of private retailers selling wine and spirits.

Bill Patton, spokesman for the House Democrats, called the chamber's decision to press the pause button on Turzai's proposal "a stinging rebuke." Most House Democrats are against privatization.

Turzai's plan calls for issuing 1,600 licenses, the first 1,050 of which would be offered to beer distributors, who under current law can sell only beer by the case or keg. The remaining licenses would be auctioned on a county-by-county basis to the highest bidders.

The plan also would 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. Currently, 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 proposal has run into a wall of resistance and opposition. Critics include legislators who believe alcohol should be tightly controlled and union supporters who worry that LCB employees will lose good-paying jobs.

There is also debate on whether Pennsylvania's cash-starved coffers would suffer by scrapping the current system, which reliably delivers revenue. Turzai has estimated auctioning off the Liquor Control Board's retail and wholesale operations would generate up to $1.9 billion, but that number is hotly contested by privatization opponents — chief among them Wendell W. Young IV, who heads the union representing State Store employees.

Turzai "doesn't have the votes," Young said Tuesday night in an interview. "He's lost momentum and he knows that." But Young doesn't expect Turzai to relent.

"Mike is a philosophical zealot on this issue," he said.

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

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