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Liquor reform lite

HARRISBURG

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett could claim a victory, albeit a minor one, if the General Assembly allowed beer and wine in all grocery stores and allowed six packs to be sold in convenience stores.

It's a visible change, one that the public would see regularly (not to mention appreciate). OK, this would not involve auctioning off all the state stores. Let the stores try to compete for a while. Most wouldn't last long. But require a small portion to stay open in rural areas if the region appears to be underserved.

It's nowhere near what Corbett and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, wanted. But it would be historic. Set up a plan to phase out the stores over five years, 10 years, whatever.

Is this great policy? Of course not. But it could be a politically feasible solution in a Legislature that has struggled with the issue for more than two years.

The hurdle to getting full-blown divestiture is that other special interests want a piece of the action — box stores, pharmacies and beer distributors. The distributors like the status quo, where they have a monopoly on selling beer by the case as a result of protective legislation historically provided by distributor-friendly legislators.

Pennsylvania adjusts to change best in small steps. Shutting down the state-run system at once might be the best theoretical solution; if the state should be out of the liquor business, then scrap state control, period. That's consistent.

Pennsylvania and Utah are the only two states controlling wholesale and retail sales. Even in socially conservative Utah you can buy bottles of beer in state stores selling wine and liquor. Beer of 3.2 percent alcohol is available in grocery stores.

It's more readily available in Salt Lake City than in Pennsylvania.

But practically speaking, Pennsylvania lawmakers and many of their constituents are change resistant. There are thousands of state store jobs at risk, people's livelihoods, careers. A longer-term divestiture process would reduce the workforce of the Liquor Control Board gradually as people retire. That might make it easier for some Republicans sympathetic to unions to vote for it.

All of that said, even getting wine and beer in grocery markets could hit roadblocks. Some beer distributors would be losers. Many have clout in legislative districts. The unions representing state store clerks will still fight anything vaguely resembling privatization. Grocery stores that collectively spent millions to expand to include eating facilities for an “R” restaurant license would no longer have an edge in being able to sell bottles of beer.

So even the easiest path won't be easy. But liquor reform lite, as described above, is probably the best shot. In the next session, interests left out now would be back for inclusion.

When slot machine licenses were handed out in 2006, it took only four years before table games were added by the Legislature. Keno games look like the next step.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 or [email protected]).


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