Pa. Senate hears testimony on liquor bill

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HARRISBURG -- The effort to privatize Pennsylvania liquor sales landed Tuesday in a committee hearing room full of skeptical witnesses, and Senate leaders made clear the path forward could involve major revisions negotiated in the late-June budget flurry.

The chairman of the Senate Law & Justice Committee, Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, opposes the House bill and Tuesday convened a hearing of witnesses who said making alcohol more prevalent would increase both the risk of addiction and demands on law enforcement agencies. Mr. McIlhinney told reporters afterward that he opposes the House bill and intends to hold two additional hearings before presenting his own plan mid-June.

"There's a way to provide convenience without adding an alcohol outlet on every corner," Mr. McIlhinney said.

As the June 30 state budget deadline approaches, the fates of major policy proposals can become entangled, as Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, acknowledged while speaking to reporters Monday.

"I think it's fair to say liquor is of a high importance to the House and transportation is of a high importance to the Senate," he said. "Those are the issues that have been very high-profile in those caucuses."

In the span of a week in late January and early February, Gov. Tom Corbett unveiled as major policy objectives his proposals to replace the state liquor stores with private sales and to raise billions of dollars for transportation infrastructure.

"Clearly we all know that come mid-June all the issues start coming together," Mr. Scarnati continued. "Whether it's fortunately or unfortunately ... all these big issues evolve around the budget and the budget timing. The moon, the stars line up and things suddenly get done."

The governor's liquor proposal underwent significant changes in the House, but Mr. Corbett visited the Republican caucus room to congratulate members when they passed the bill in March. After the hearing Tuesday, the governor's press secretary, Kevin Harley, said Mr. Corbett is optimistic legislation will reach his desk before lawmakers break for summer recess.

Senators heard from representatives of police associations that increased access to alcohol would require increased law enforcement and the funding to pay for it.

Joe Kovel, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, said his organization does not support or oppose the House privatization bill, but he said the state would have to add troopers to fill the spots of those needed to enforce the private liquor system.

"If you take from the pot here to cover liquor, you have to replenish," he said. "You have to backfill that complement of state police."

After the hearing, state police Commissioner Frank Noonan responded that the governor had proposed funding sufficient to satisfy any increased enforcement needs.

"If we are going to privatize, Gov. Corbett and I have sat down and he's dedicated $5 million for increased enforcement," Mr. Noonan said. "I think that's an adequate sum for us to deal with the issues that are coming up."

The hearing also featured experts in alcoholism, who warned that increased access to alcohol would lead to more cases of addiction. Deb Beck, president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania, took on the argument of proponents that privatization will allow greater convenience for consumers.

"Ten percent of people nationally will develop an alcohol problem," she said. "And don't you think a little inconvenience is a good idea to keep somebody off the highway who's drinking?"

The list of witnesses caught the attention of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association, which sent a letter to senators warning that the roster seemed "intended to generate ill-will towards privatization because of perceived negative 'social impacts.'

"Testifiers will inevitably tug at heartstrings and assert that selling off our Soviet-style liquor system will bring nothing but ruination, despite a plethora of data saying otherwise."

David Taylor, the group's executive director, said legislators should consider positive social effects of privatization, such as divorcing the regulatory responsibilities of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board from its objective of boosting sales.

Mr. McIlhinney said he wanted to allow experts to testify about social effects in one hearing but that future sessions will include retailers and representatives of the Corbett administration.

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Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141. First Published April 30, 2013 12:00 AM


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