HARRISBURG — Wine on supermarket shelves. Beer sold in 12-packs. Sunday liquor purchases.
Is this really Pennsylvania?
Last week’s enactment of a law that will let hundreds of stores add by-the-bottle wine sales was the latest in a slow drip of efforts by lawmakers and regulators to loosen the state’s long-derided grip on its system of alcohol control, and nudge the Keystone State into the 21st century.
What remains to be seen is if the new changes will be enough, for now, to quell the advocates who have called for turning over the system to private enterprise, or if it will instead just speed the momentum in that direction.
“Overall, I think it’s a slow chipping away of the total control of the liquor store system,” said William Morrin, an attorney who represents bars and restaurants in the southeastern corner of the state. “The Legislature is trying to appease the consumer by giving these little advances toward privatization.”
Last week’s surprise came together when the House on Tuesday unexpectedly passed a bill that had lain dormant since the Senate approved it as part of a wide-ranging budget deal that collapsed in December. Gov. Tom Wolf said he needed time to review the measure, but took only a day to sign it into law.
Within months, it will enable hundreds of restaurants, hotels and grocery and convenience stores that sell take-out beer to also sell bottles of wine.
The law also allows direct shipments of wine to homes and lets casinos get licenses to sell alcohol around the clock, while removing restrictions on when state stores can open on Sundays and holidays. Finally, it gives the Liquor Control Board flexibility in pricing.
“We are changing a system that many people in Pennsylvania have wanted to change for a very long time,” Mr. Wolf said before signing the legislation.
But the move seemed more reflective of a pattern than a single groundbreaking step.
For years, the Republicans who control the legislature have made reform or sale of the liquor control system a priority issue. Democrats, who count the thousands of unionized state-store workers among their steady supporters, have resisted.
Between the two has been a steady drumbeat of smaller changes, most seemingly tailored to address the biggest complaints of Pennsylvania consumers — the roadblocks to conveniently buy a bottle of wine or beer, as residents of so many other states can do.
In 2010, the State Supreme Court upheld what was then a monumental decision, letting a supermarket chain — in this case Wegmans — sell beer for takeout or on-site consumption, as long as the sales occurred in separate, restaurant-like spaces with seating for at least 30 people and dedicated check-out lines.
After the ruling, other grocery chains scrambled to set up cafes and flocked to get similar licenses.
A flurry of other moves followed.
A 2011 law permitted small-scale distillers to sell their product on site. That same year, legislators agreed to let Pennsylvania bars extend their daily happy-hour specials from two to four hours, provided they remained within 14 hours a week.
In late 2014, the LCB issued an opinion saying that restaurants, pizza shops and other outlets could, for the first time, deliver customers up to two six-packs of beer.
Months later, in March 2015, the agency’s chief counsel issued another legal advisory that won more cheers from beer drinkers: Distributors would be allowed to sell 12-packs to consumers, not just cases and kegs.
But last week’s law may be the most significant on the state store system — or its bottom line. Within months, LCB stores that sell wine may face competition for customers from supermarkets that sit just feet away in the same shopping plaza.
Mark Flaherty, a Pittsburgh-based lawyer whose firm, Flaherty & O’Hara, represents grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants and hotels in liquor licensing and enforcement, said the newly enacted legislation shows “a more modern approach” to the regulation of alcoholic beverages.
“Incremental change is change all the same,” he said.
Of course, not every change has been a success.
In an ill-fated 2010 experiment, the LCB tried out wine-vending kiosks in a limited number of supermarkets.
The machines required customers to insert their driver’s licenses into a slot, look into a camera so an official in Harrisburg could verify their identity and then blow into a Breathalyzer that would detect if they were under the influence of alcohol.
After a series of malfunctions, the kiosks were shut down the following year.
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org