In hearing at beer distributor, few cheer liquor privatization

Posted: March 28, 2013

After years of working at a bank, Nancy Dillett of Meadowbrook, Montgomery County, lost her job in the late 1990s when her company was taken over by a rival. She spent the next decade raising her two children as a stay-at-home mom, then rejoined the workforce 18 months ago - as a retail clerk in a State Store.

On Wednesday, Dillett, 55, who works at the liquor store in Jenkintown, told a panel of Democratic legislators that the state House's recent passage of a bill to phase out the State Stores left her fearful of finding herself without work once more.

"I know what it's like to lose a job," said Dillett, whose children are headed to college soon. "I'm very happy to have this job."

Dillett was one of several union members and others who came to speak against the bill, which is backed by Gov. Corbett and most of his fellow Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature.

Though the topic was familiar, the setting was not. House Democrats held the hearing at Big Top Beverage, a drafty Abington beer distributor with a concrete floor, where stacks of Coors Light towered near legislators sitting at folding tables, with cases of local brews like Kenzinger and Philadelphia Pale Ale piled in front of them. The few dozen politicians, union members, and others in attendance crowded around to listen, some craning around cases to hear the witnesses.

The historic bill, the first such proposal to clear either chamber in Harrisburg, is expected to be taken up by the Senate in the coming months. It calls for gradually selling off licenses to the private sector and offering beer retailers the first chance, followed by other private-sector businesses such as supermarkets and big-box stores. State Stores would be phased out.

Supporters want to use the proceeds from selling the licenses - as much as $1 billion in the governor's original plan - for early-childhood education and other aid to public schools. They also say privatizing the liquor business will improve access and convenience for customers. Corbett has said the bill puts Pennsylvania "on the path to enjoying the same consumer choice and convenience that 48 other states currently offer." The only other state-run system is Utah's.

Opponents say privatization would put beer distributors and other mom-and-pop stores in danger of being squeezed out by major retailers. And no foe is more outspoken than Wendell Young IV.

The scenery at Wednesday's hearing allowed Young, president of the union that represents State Store clerks, to make a point vividly. Gesturing to the cases around him, Young said privatization would allow the major grocery store down the street to start offering beer, at lower prices. Eventually, Young said, the loss of customers to big chains could drive stores like Big Top right out of business.

"They have deep pockets and the ability to do that," he said.

The bill would lead to the loss of 5,000 jobs, Young told the panel. Namely, the loss of jobs for people like Dillett and Christine May, another State Store employee who spoke Wednesday.

May, 55, is a former letter carrier who said she retired from the U.S. Postal Service four years ago. Though she works just 15 hours a week at a State Store in Horsham, she said the part-time job pays for preschool for one of her five grandchildren.

"I chose to apply for another government job that I thought would be stable," she said.


Contact Allison Steele at 610-313-8113 or asteele@phillynews.com.

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