House bill would shut Pa. liquor stores, open sales to groceries and pharmacies
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HARRISBURG -- For the first time since Gov. Tom Corbett unveiled his plan to disband state-run alcohol sales, privatization is headed for a vote. But with the chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee developing an extensive amendment, the forthcoming bill may not mirror the governor's proposal.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, who has led privatization efforts in the Legislature, on Tuesday introduced legislation to implement the governor's plan, which would shutter state wine and liquor stores while opening sales to sites such as groceries and pharmacies. Mr. Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said he expects a House panel to clear the legislation March 18, with a vote by the full House two days later.
But the head of the House liquor committee, Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, objects to several aspects of the Republican governor's plan and is developing a set of changes he plans to bring to a vote. Mr. Taylor said he believes his amendment, when finalized, would allow privatization to pass his panel and the House, although he said it is possible that Mr. Corbett's plan also could win committee approval if called to a vote.
"Maybe it can, but I think [there are] some parts of the proposal I'm not personally for," Mr. Taylor said, explaining that he believes the governor's plan would unfairly disadvantage beer distributors and make beer too readily available. "I'm from Philadelphia. I'm really not looking to have beer in every corner store."
Mr. Corbett would replace about 600 state wine and liquor stores with 1,200 licenses distributed through auction. He would allow distributors, currently restricted to selling beer by the case, to sell six-packs and to bid for a wine and spirits license. Mr. Taylor said he wants to give beer distributors the first chance at licenses.
The governor's plan would allow grocery stores and pharmacies to sell six-packs and wine to go, and convenience stores to sell single six-packs. Mr. Taylor said he feared that the proposal would make beer too prevalent, but he said his amendment would provide sales opportunities to convenience stores, bars and taverns and groceries with licenses.
Where Mr. Corbett would sell off the retail stores within 31/2 years and wholesale operations in the following six months, Mr. Taylor said he wants to tie the closing of state stores to the opening of private retail facilities in surrounding areas. He said his proposal for shuttering the state stores could take more time, or less, than the governor proposes.
"If you're a Pennsylvanian who cares about the philosophy of us being in the business, this is not going to make you happy," Mr. Taylor said. "But if you care about consumer choice, there's really no harm in having the two coexist for a certain period until the private markets are up and running."
Asked about the proposal Mr. Taylor is developing, Mr. Turzai said he would move forward with what the committee produces.
"A plan that moves us forward to the sale of wine and spirits in the private sector is privatization," he said. "I think the governor's proposal, which built upon our previous proposal, is very strong. We're going to let the committee work it out, and then we're going to move a bill to the floor."
Mr. Turzai described selling off the state stores immediately or simply adding private-sector competition as different paths to the same endpoint.
"In my mind, once the private sector gets the opportunity to sell wine and spirits, the state stores are -- over time they're not going to be able to compete," he said. "They'll be phased out by the market. You move to a private sector distribution; it's just a matter of time."
Mr. Corbett, who has touted his proposal's promise to raise $1 billion for education grants, wants to end state involvement, a spokesman said.
"The governor's plan is based on increasing consumer choice and convenience, getting the state completely out of the liquor business and raising $1 billion for education while remaining fiscally neutral," spokesman Eric Shirk said in a statement. "We will continue working with Chairman Taylor and we are optimistic that what comes out of committee will reflect those principles."
Wendell W. Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents liquor store employees, said lawmakers should be prepared to reject all proposals to dismantle the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
"Mike Turzai made it clear today that he wants to tear apart this public asset any way he can," Mr. Young said in a statement. "He is going to try and sneak a bill through the committee before the public can have any say, before lawmakers can have any input."
The House minority leader, Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, also charged that Republicans are moving too quickly.
"Leader Turzai is pushing for a vote on his liquor bill before almost any discussion takes place," Mr. Dermody said in a statement. "The more complicated his plan becomes, the faster he wants to vote on it with no committee hearings. That should be a big flashing sign that something is wrong."
In the Senate, a bill with the support of President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, among others, would maintain the state wholesale purchasing system while expanding retail sales of wine and spirits and allowing beer distributors to obtain additional licenses.
First Published March 6, 2013 12:00 am