Pa. lawmakers fail to act on wine delivery

Bills allowing shipment of wine await action. "It's mind-boggling," a sponsor said of the failure.

Posted: October 28, 2012

HARRISBURG - Another year, another disappointment for Pennsylvania's wine connoisseurs.

The General Assembly's 2011-12 session is scheduled to come to a close without action on legislation that would allow wine lovers to get direct shipments to their homes from vineyards in California and other states.

Two measures were introduced this session that also would have benefited Pennsylvania's 140 family owned wineries by allowing reciprocity agreements so they could ship their products directly to customers in other states.

"It's mind-boggling" that after two years, legislators still haven't enacted a direct-shipment bill, said State Sen. Jane Earll, who introduced one of the measures.

"Wine consumers should be able to shop conveniently," she said.

Rep. Curt Sonney, like Earll an Erie County Republican, pushed a similar bill in the House, saying it would benefit both Pennsylvania wine buyers and wineries. Many vineyards are in northwestern Pennsylvania and want to sell products to out-of-state customers, he said.

Although the current session isn't officially over until Nov. 30, the 203 House members and 50 senators went home Oct. 17 to campaign for reelection. The Senate won't be back after the Nov. 6 election, and while the House is due back on Nov. 13, no more votes on bills are scheduled.

"There is absolutely no reason in the world why Pennsylvania shouldn't have direct shipment of wine to consumers, as most other states have," Earll said.

Marcia Lampman, executive director of the House Liquor Control Committee, said legislators get a lot of requests from constituents who want to purchase directly from out of state, especially from California, home to the Napa Valley and other areas known for their wine.

The Earll bill passed the Senate in May but never got out of a House committee. The Sonney bill was set for a vote on the House floor in mid-October, but House members adjourned without voting on it.

Earll is retiring from the Legislature Nov. 30, but Sonney said he'll try again for direct shipment in the new session.

Jennifer Eckinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Winery Association, which represents state winemakers, said her group continues to support direct shipment "and we will work with all parties in the next session toward that goal."

In-state wineries now can ship directly to Pennsylvania consumers, adding the state's 6 percent sales tax. People who want to buy wine from another state must have it shipped to the nearest state Liquor Control Board store, where the buyer picks it up and pays both the sales tax and Pennsylvania's special 18 percent liquor tax, also known as the Johnstown flood tax.

Under both direct shipment bills, in-state and out-of-state wineries could have shipped directly to customers' homes.

But both would have to charge the liquor tax as well as the sales tax - a substantial increase from the current law governing in-state shipments that was nevertheless supported by the industry because it would then be able to send local wines to consumers around the country.

Gov. Christie signed a bill in January that allows out-of-state wineries to ship directly to consumers there.

Some critics of the Pennsylvania legislation feared that buyers under the legal age of 21 might order wine by phone or online, but the bills would have required delivery companies such as UPS to ensure the recipient proves his or her age.

Earll expressed regret that her bill didn't get much attention in the House. She said direct shipment should be voted on by itself, not tied to ongoing legislative efforts to privatize wine and liquor sales.

"Direct shipment would have been one step forward without waiting for the whole issue of privatization," Earll said. "Why we wouldn't want to take that one step forward is beyond me."

Some Republicans said the direct-shipment bill ran into trouble precisely because it got caught up in the bigger and more controversial debate over privatization. House Republican leader Mike Turzai of Allegheny County has tried for most of the two-year session to privatize wine and liquor sales in Pennsylvania - something that has been tried and failed for at least 30 years - but he couldn't get enough votes from colleagues, even though Gov. Corbett supports privatization.

Turzai had a bill to create 1,600 privately owned stores to sell wine and liquor instead of the 620 stores now owned and run by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, but was unable to round up a minimum of 102 House GOP votes needed for passage. The union representing LCB workers strongly lobbied against the bill.

Turzai aide Steve Miskin said direct shipment of wine is an important issue for the House leader and will be pushed in 2013. He said a new bill by Sonney would likely be offered.

Many House Republicans "are actively advocating for the direct shipment bill," Miskin said. "We are going to take a run at it next year. We just ran out of time this year."

He said that Earll's complaints that the issue was being linked to privatization were unfounded, adding that was odd to learn her criticism from a reporter because "she never called or visited our offices to push for her bill. We never heard from her."

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