As House looks to dismantle state stores, hybrid system might be option
HARRISBURG — With the Republican-controlled state House on Thursday poised to approve a liquor privatization bill, and Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf demanding “modernization” of the state stores, only a few outcomes seem possible, analysts and lawmakers said.
One is a potential compromise such as a hybrid state system as in North Carolina, where wine and beer are sold in grocery stores but state-owned stores sell liquor, said Vincent Carocci, former press secretary for the late Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey.
Carocci, who headed a panel for improving the state stores under Casey, said, “It strikes me that the easiest thing for any of the parties to accomplish something is to allow wine and beer in grocery stores,” said Carocci. Virginia is a state with that type of split system, said Margaret Barchine of the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association.
“It’s tangible and visible to the consumer,” said Carocci, the author of a book about state politics.
About 240 supermarkets and convenience stores with restaurant licenses can sell beer in Pennsylvania. Other beer purchases for carry-out may be made from distributors, bars and restaurants with licenses.
As for the House bill phasing out state-owned wine and spirits stores, a vestige of Prohibition, House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, told reporters, “We’re going to pass it.”
While Reed sees improved chances for Senate passage with new leaders there, some analysts don’t share his optimism. Privatization “doesn’t seem to be as big of a priority,” for the Senate, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University. The Senate last session failed to approve an almost identical House bill approved in March 2013.
“I hope at the end of the day … privatization stalls again,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.
Reed doesn’t believe the Senate will take up the House bill and approve it without making changes. He’s hopeful for a discussion with the Republican-controlled Senate and Wolf, who is a Democrat.
The Senate’s official position is that the chamber “is committed to conducting a thorough review of whatever the House adopts and sends to us for consideration,” said Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County.
Another possibility is that the House liquor bill becomes a bargaining chip in budget and tax negotiations, Leckrone said. “I think that the only way privatization gets done is if it is part of a larger ‘grand bargain’ compromise on the bigger proposals like pensions, shale tax, tax fairness,” Leckrone said. The state is trying to close a $2.3 billion budget deficit.
Wolf, however, seems to be “under no pressure to negotiate if the House and Senate Republicans aren’t on the same page,” Carocci said. Wolf next week is expected to announce modernization proposals in his budget address. Those might include removal of Sunday sales limitations, opening mini-state stores inside grocery stores and direct shipment of wine and spirits, according to Wolf’s office and Democratic legislators.
Steven Peterson, a political science professor at Penn State’s Harrisburg campus, said with Senate leadership changes and increased GOP ranks in the House, “There is a stronger voice for privatization.” But he said he believes modernization itself “is a middle ground.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].