Effort to overhaul liquor sales stalls in Pennsylvania Senate

Issue won't make headway until June


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HARRISBURG -- Efforts stalled this week among state Senate Republicans trying to craft a bill to increase the availability of beer and wine in Pennsylvania, and with lawmakers adjourning Wednesday, the earliest the issue could see further action is June.

A liquor sales overhaul and the privatization of the state's wine and spirits stores have been top political priorities of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett; the state House passed a privatization bill last year that would phase out the state store system.

The Senate has taken a different approach; a summary of the Senate proposal circulating among legislators would continue to leave stronger spirits in state-run liquor stores, while expanding the availability of wine and beer sales for consumers.

Among the changes proposed: Restrictions on selling alcohol where gasoline also is sold would be lifted, and restaurant license-holders -- a category that includes some supermarkets -- would be able to sell wine with the beer they can already sell. Additionally, beer distributors could sell wine and six-packs of beer and growlers, along with the cases of beer they sell now.

State liquor stores could be open on Sundays with expanded hours, and would be open on some state holidays that they are now closed.

Other proposed changes would allow for the direct shipment of wine from producers to consumers, and allow casinos to serve alcohol until 4 a.m.

The Senate's 23 Democrats continue to favor a plan they say would modernize the state store system and allow it to bring in more revenue, and have not been part of the Republican majority's discussions. Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, on Tuesday blasted the Republican proposal as lacking important elements of the modernization plan, and said the Republican effort would be a revenue-loser for the state.

Sticking points in the discussion within the 27-member Republican caucus include uncertainty over the number of outlets that will be able to sell alcohol of various types, the question of whether beer should be sold at gas stations, concerns over the availability of alcohol in rural areas, and the role of existing beer distributors and other retailers.

"Different members have different concerns," said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi. "It is not an issue that impacts regions of the state in the same way."

The competing commercial interests -- beer distributors, taverns that sell six-packs, grocery stores with restaurant licenses and numerous other retailers -- make large changes to the system difficult.

"You can't just pull on a thread and unravel the entire thing. Those businesses have been playing by the rules," Mr. Arneson said.

Several Republican senators said despite the slow movement, they still felt confident there could be a breakthrough in June -- typically a hectic time -- due to the June 30 budget deadline.

Lawmakers return to Harrisburg on June 2.

"It's a very close situation," said Sen. John Eichelberger, R- Blair, on Wednesday. "We're working the last few people. It could happen at any time."

Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, said on Tuesday that "the attitude is, we do intend to do something" on this issue.


Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com.

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