Pa. House nears vote on liquor privatization

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HARRISBURG -- Legislation to cede wine and liquor sales from state government to private business is poised for a vote in the state House after Democrats on Wednesday found too few votes to gut the bill.

Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said the House would return to vote today, a date lawmakers were not originally scheduled to meet.

"We expect the members to vote with their constituents and pass the legislation to the Senate," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans.

Mr. Miskin said it would be the first time either chamber had approved the private sales of wine and spirits.

The legislation creates 1,200 licenses for the sale of wine and spirits, first available to beer distributors, with the possibility of up to 600 additional licenses as state stores close.

Grocery stores could buy licenses to sell wine, but -- unlike under the governor's plan -- not beer, except through existing provisions for restaurant licenses.

The bill contains no deadline for shuttering the state retail system. The state's roughly 600 wine and spirits stores would be phased out as the number of private operators grows.

Under the bill, the state stores would close when there are twice as many private sellers as state stores in a county. Also, the Liquor Control Board would be banned from operating fewer than 100 outlets.

With more than 100 amendments filed for consideration Wednesday, House members had prepared to debate well into the night. But they voted on only 10 before ending debate.

Democrats decided to withdraw scores of amendments after a proposal by their ranking member on the Liquor Control Committee failed on a nearly party-line vote. Instead of replacing the state liquor system with private sales, the amendment by Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, would have expanded hours of operation at the state stores, introduced more flexible pricing and allowed direct shipment of wine.

"When it was that clear we were not going to get the support from the other side of the aisle, we figured why bother," Mr. Costa said. "We weren't going to waste their time or our time."

But Mr. Costa said he expects a lengthy debate today as members address the final bill.


Karen Langley: or 717-787-2141.


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