Senate GOP pushing vote on Pa. liquor

But leaders need additional votes to pass measure

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HARRISBURG -- After another round of liquor discussions, Senate Republicans are working toward a possible vote this week on a plan to increase the availability of beer and wine in Pennsylvania.

Senators and aides emphasized that the plan remains a work in progress, and they said they remain short of the 26 votes needed to pass a bill without the help of Democrats, who support more gradual measures that would protect the state-owned wine and liquor stores.

But each of the top Republicans, Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, would like to hold a vote, aides said.

"It is Sen. Scarnati's hope that this plan get a floor vote ... , recognizing at this point we still need to find additional votes in our caucus," said Drew Crompton, his chief of staff and legal counsel.

Spokesman Erik Arneson said Mr. Pileggi shares that hope: "If we can construct a plan that has 26 votes, there will be a floor vote," Mr. Arneson said.

The state government's involvement in alcohol sales remains a tortured topic at the Capitol. Gov. Tom Corbett has called for turning the business over to the private sector and in March 2013 the House of Representatives approved legislation that would allow private sales of wine and liquor while phasing out the government stores.

But the Senate has favored a more gradual approach, with Republican members expressing concern over how changes would affect the livelihoods of beer distributors and the availability of alcohol in rural areas.

As described by Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, who is working on the proposal with Mr. Scarnati and Mr. Pileggi, the plan under development would leave the state stores operating while reducing restrictions on beer and wine sales. It would leave liquor to the state stores because of the concerns of some members, Mr. McIlhinney said in an interview.

"They didn't want to see fifths of Jack Daniel's going out of Wawa at 2 a.m.," he said, referring to the convenience-store chain based in the Philadelphia area.

Holders of restaurant liquor licenses, a category that includes some supermarkets, would be allowed to sell wine to go, as well as the beer they currently can sell. Beer distributors would be allowed to offer wine and to sell six-packs and growlers, as well as the cases they now provide.

The ban on selling alcohol close to gas pumps would be lifted, and consumers would be allowed to buy wine online for shipment to their homes.

While nearly all House Republicans supported that chamber's liquor bill, the Senate has proven more difficult. Mr. McIlhinney described trying to negotiate a plan acceptable both to members who want to extricate the state from the liquor business and to those concerned at the prospect of easy access to alcohol.

"The problem is the more I push in one direction, I lose votes on the other side of the spectrum," he said.

Without Democratic votes -- Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said there are no votes in his caucus for a "Republican privatization plan" -- the Republicans would need 26 of their 27 members to pass a bill.

Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, counts himself as a "reluctant yes" vote for the current plan, though he said: "It's not the privatization I had hoped for."

Chief among Mr. White's concerns is maintaining access to alcohol in Pennsylvania's rural areas. The current plan would allow for that, he said, with a provision to allow small family-owned stores to sell wine.

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said she sees beer as the biggest challenge to reaching agreement, though she said she could support the current proposal "with a little more work."

Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, said he would prefer a plan, proposed by business groups, to do away with the state retail and wholesale systems.

"Arguably what Chuck is trying to do is taper off the liquor stores and phase them out over time," he said. "But that is a much longer process that I think is unnecessary and will be more problematic over time. It would be cleaner to make the decision to shift to the private market entirely at this point."

Senators were far from agreement when they discussed the issue last week in Republican caucus, said Sen. Elder Vogel, R-New Sewickley. There were worries about the businesses of family-run beer distributors and about a proliferation of outlets selling beer.

"I don't know if they have enough votes," Mr. Vogel said. "They were going to take a nose count over the weekend."

Retail beer distributors are concerned that components of the plan -- such as allowing gas stations to sell beer -- could threaten their livelihoods, said Mark Tanczos, president of the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania.

"It's basically an attack on our small businesses, our-already privatized beer distributors," Mr. Tanczos said.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States said in a statement that expanding the availability of wine would drain revenue from the state stores.

Senate Democrats have backed an alternate proposal that they say would "modernize" the system by giving state stores more flexibility in pricing, allowing them more freedom to hire or promote wine specialists without going through the civil service system, allow for more stores, remove the cap on the number of stores open on Sundays and allow for direct shipment of wine from manufacturers to residential consumers.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board contributed $80 million last year to the state's general fund, on top of more than $430 million in liquor and state sales taxes.

"It's the goose that lays the golden egg," said Wendell Young IV, president of Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-2141 or Twitter @karen_langley. Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 or Twitter @KateGiammarise.


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