Former LCB chief Jonathan Newman stumps to dismantle state liquor system

Privatization 'is the right thing to do'

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The man who once had the greatest say over what alcohol Pennsylvanians could drink has thrown his support behind the effort to take that control away from government and end the State Store system.

Jonathan Newman, the former chairman of the state Liquor Control Board, said on Tuesday that "the stars are perfectly aligned" to privatize the sale of wine and hard liquor in Pennsylvania -- an endeavor that has failed under three different governors.

"This is the year change is going to happen," Mr. Newman said during a news conference at the Wine School of Philadelphia.

Mr. Newman joined House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, and state Rep. Tom Killion, R-Delaware County, the sponsors of the bill to privatize the wholesale and retail operations of the LCB.

All three men said they believe the long-sought goal of scraping the State Store system could be achieved this year, with a "pro-business" Legislature and governor and with public opinion running heavily in favor.

"You know what's beautiful about this issue?" Mr. Newman asked. "It brings [liberals] and conservatives together."

While supporters do come from both sides of the aisle, so do opponents.

Democrats, including House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, have expressed concerns about the 5,000 union liquor store employees who would be put out of work.

Meanwhile, the Senate's top Republican, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said in July that the timing wasn't right to privatize liquor stores because lawmakers have more pressing issues to address this fall.

Socially conservative lawmakers who want to tamp down alcohol consumption also could step up to oppose the Turzai bill.

Mr. Turzai has argued that Pennsylvanians pay higher prices for a lower selection, while the state's dual roles of selling alcohol and enforcing drunk driving and alcohol laws represent "a conflict of interest."

Under his bill, the state would auction off 1,250 retail licenses -- 750 to big retailers and the rest to smaller enterprises.

He argues this would give the state a huge windfall of cash and create jobs in the long run.

Mr. Newman spent more than seven years on the LCB, nearly five as chairman. He instituted the "Chairman's Selection" wine program and Sunday sales, and he has been heralded by wine enthusiasts for his work.

Since leaving the LCB in 2007 during a public spat with then-Gov. Ed Rendell, Mr. Newman has been running a suburban Philadelphia-based wine and spirits business. Critics have said Mr. Newman could profit from privatization.

Mr. Newman said the current system drives Philadelphia customers elsewhere to buy alcohol.

"We don't want to be bootleggers. ... We want to keep our business in Pennsylvania," he said. "I think for many reasons this is the right thing to do."

Troy Graham: 215-854-2730, or @troyjgraham on Twitter.


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