HARRISBURG -- The effort to allow private sales of liquor and wine in Pennsylvania cleared an initial Senate vote in the early hours Saturday, when Republicans, after days of private negotiation and persuasion, united the last of their resistant members late Friday behind a proposal.
The 27-23 vote, with all Democrats opposed, amended a House proposal and must still be approved for final passage from the Senate. Even then, its fate is unclear. Unlike proposals by the House and Gov. Tom Corbett, for whom liquor privatization is a priority, the Senate measure would not divest of the state's wholesale purchasing of wine and liquor. The Senate proposal also appears to leave open the possibility that state wine and spirits stores could remain open in places where private shops do not spring up.
With Democrats united against any proposal that would threaten the state stores, and Republican senators holding concerns about the effect of privatization on the business of beer distributors and the availability of alcohol in rural districts, Republican leaders struggled to find the 26 votes they expected to need. After meeting for hours Friday afternoon and night, they ended up with 27.
"If it was just about wine and spirits, it would have been easier," said Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, who chairs a committee that considered the bill. "But because the package reform for beer was brought in by the governor early on, and you had to deal with alcohol reform, it made it very difficult to deal with these competing private-sector interests."
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said he expects the proposal will be considered in committee when senators return later today.
The measure would, according to a description by Mr. Pileggi, allow beer distributors to also sell wine and spirits. Grocery stores and taverns selling beer to go could add wine to their shelves. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board would be allowed to lease -- not sell -- its wholesale operation, if the deal would increase state profits.
The Senate amended the proposal into the House bill around 1:20 a.m. Saturday, after about an hour of debate. Democrats criticized the amendment as confusing, hastily drawn and rushed through in the wee hours of the morning.
"This is an ill-advised amendment to a system that has worked very well for this commonwealth," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa of Forest Hills, one of a number of Democrats who spoke against the amendment.
After the vote, Democrats fell short in an attempt to win approval for a proposal by Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, to modernize the state liquor system through changes to personnel rules, pricing and other areas.
Mr. Corbett, who has asked legislators to send him a privatization bill, along with other major initiatives, by the state budget deadline tomorrow, released a statement calling the vote an important step.
"I would like to thank the members of the Senate who supported the effort to give the people of Pennsylvania that choice and convenience," he said. "I look forward to their passing a final bill."
Mr. McIlhinney said he has spoken with House members about the proposal but that it was not agreed to by the House Republican leadership.
"They have an idea of what's coming, and generally they're pretty receptive," Mr. McIlhinney said. "That does not mean that the leader, (Mike) Turzai, signed off on any of this."
Wendell Young IV, the president of the union representing liquor store employees, said he would return later this morning to talk with senators about the remaining votes and with members of the House, which also would have to approve the measure.
"We're very upset. There's 5,000 people's jobs at stake who work for the agency," he said. "If you look at the metrics of this, the math involved, it's very hard to see any scenario where, if this were approved, where our wine and spirits shops would last very long."
While Senate Republicans grappled with the liquor bill, leaders of the House Republican majority have worked wrangling votes for and tweaks to a proposal to raise new annual revenue for the state's roads, bridges and public transit. House consideration of a transportation plan is expected today.
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