Senator wants to relax beer-selling laws
Backed by a crowd made up mostly of Sheetz employees who were being paid to be on hand, State Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, speaks out Tuesday about legislation he plans to introduce that will allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell beer. The senator spoke during a state Capitol Rotunda event sponsored by the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association and the Pennsylvania Convenience Store Council.
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HARRISBURG -- As the sound of Revolutionary War fifes and drums echoed through Capitol hallways Tuesday, supermarkets and convenience stores launched a new attempt at one of the most difficult legislative feats -- liberalizing Pennsylvania's beer-selling laws.
A crowd of about 150 people, many from the Sheetz store chain, held signs calling for a "Beer Revolution" in Pennsylvania, with others reading "I Drink and I Vote," "Free My Beer" and "Get Your Hands Off My 6 Pack."
State Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, joined by the Pennsylvania Convenience Store Council and the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, backed a new bill that they said would "make sweeping and historic changes to the way beer is sold in Pennsylvania."
Specifically, it would allow a six-pack, a 12-pack or a case of beer to be sold, for the first time, at convenience stores and groceries. Currently, most beer is sold by state-licensed beer distributors, and only by the case or keg; under the new bill, they also would be able to sell one or two six-packs.
It also would strengthen efforts to make sure beer isn't sold to underage youths. It would require "carding," or the showing of valid ID, by everyone buying beer, regardless of how old they look. The system would use "electronic age-verification machines to ensure that minors are not buying alcohol illegally."
Sheetz owner Stan Sheetz said his chain sells beer at its stores in five other states and wants to do so in Pennsylvania. His general counsel, Michael Cortez, urged scrapping "outdated beer laws" and giving consumers "what they've wanted for years -- the ability to buy beer in convenience stores and supermarkets." Backers have created a website, www.sixpacktogo.org.
In many other states, a consumer can buy a six-pack or two of beer at a grocery or a convenience store, but Pennsylvania laws dating to the end of Prohibition in 1933 are restrictive.
Many taverns and restaurants in the state do have "R" licenses allowing them to sell one or two six-packs at a time. Also, a few large supermarkets -- which have created sit-down restaurants inside their stores where beer is served for patrons' consumption on site -- can now sell a six-pack or two for takeout.
The Rafferty measure will likely meet strong opposition, as similar measures have in the past, from beer distributors. They have bought state-issued "D" licenses and have fought competition from supermarkets and convenience stores.
David Shipula, a beer distributor in Wilkes-Barre and president of the Malt Beverage Distributors Association, said he didn't like the new bill. He said beer distributors sell about 50 different products, mostly snacks and soft drinks in addition to beer, while large supermarkets such as Wegman's, Giant Eagle, Giant, or Safeway sell thousands of products.
He considered it unfair competition if such markets can also sell beer. He also feared that national giants such as Walmart, Kmart and Target will want to sell beer in their Pennsylvania mega-stores, again making it hard for many small, family-owned beer distributors to compete.
Some legislators are concerned about what Mothers Against Drunk Driving will say about the bill. Pennsylvania Executive Director Rebecca Shaver said her group "is not against the responsible sale of alcohol," but declined further comment until she had a chance to study the new bill.
Mr. Rafferty stressed that his bill won't create any new state-issued beer licenses. If a supermarket or convenience store wants to sell beer, it would have to buy an existing license from a business that already has one.
But Mr. Shipula said there are 12,000 "R," or restaurant-beer licenses, along with 1,300 distributor licenses and a smaller category of 500 "E" licenses, used mainly by delis that sell beer. If a supermarket chain wants to sell beer, it could offer a restaurant a high price for one of the 12,000 "R" licenses.
First Published February 17, 2010 12:10 am