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Liquor privatization goes back on the shelf

HARRISBURG — Union opposition, new language to deal with beer and local enforcement procedures and its last-minute debut contributed to the failure of a bill to privatize state liquor stores.

Gov. Tom Corbett and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai plan to try again in the fall, though political analysts say that, realistically, legislators will be loath to vote on a controversial bill before the November election and might push it to next year.

In an attempt to woo lawmakers to vote for his plan, Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, included beer-package reform, and “the net was cast too wide,” said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County.

“When I’ve got my beer distributor, my Wegman’s, my brewery calling me against it, how can I vote for it?” Vereb said, noting that beer distributors he represents don’t have air-conditioned outlets and could not afford to expand to put liquor and wine on shelves.

In addition, he said, “The police don’t like it.” Under the bill postponed for deliberation, local law enforcement would take over policing of liquor establishments.

Another Vereb constituent who doesn’t like the bill is Wendell W. Young IV, chairman of United Food and Commercial Workers of Pennsylvania Wine and Spirits Council. The union represents about 3,000 liquor store employees and is a potent force in Southeast Pennsylvania with 25,000 overall UFCW members.

“He is not what people in other areas would call a ‘union thug.’ He’s articulate and knows the issue,” Vereb said.

Turzai proposed legislation that would close 620 state stores and auction 1,600 retail outlets that include grocers. Beer distributors would get first chance to buy liquor and wine licenses.

The law would allow beer distributors to sell six-packs in any combination, not just cases — an idea proposed to offset losses from people buying beer at grocery stores. Some grocers didn’t like giving beer distributors priority for licensing.

Turzai acknowledged he had not gathered the votes he needed despite a week of behind-the-scenes wrangling and three hours of floor debate.

To address opponents’ concerns, he said Corbett “wants to have the opportunity to meet with folks, see where he can best move the agenda” forward for fall.

Hearings held last summer on the concept of privatization were related to a different bill than the one that surfaced publicly three days before the floor debate on June 11.

“You can’t expect to shove something like this down people’s throats,” said Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks County. “I am open to it, but it’s got to treat our existing licensees fairly.”

With Republicans controlling the House, Senate and governor’s mansion, some question why the GOP can’t approve a symbolic issue for the party such as replacing Pennsylvania’s archaic liquor system, in which government controls sale of wine and spirits and enforces violations, said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College.

DiSarro thinks lawmakers could accomplish that — but not this fall.

“Government should not be in the business of selling alcohol,” said privatization supporter Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant Township. “On one hand we regulate it, while on the other hand we promote it.”Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, said the fact that Republicans haven’t been able to pass such a bill demonstrates how vexing the issue is, even for GOP lawmakers. Opponents, he noted, cite the effect on state fiscal policy and question who would win from divesting a state asset.

Even with Democrats opposed, Republicans could pass the bill if they stuck together. But some Republicans in Southeastern Pennsylvania are pro-union, and others fear expansion of liquor sales.

Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks County, long has opposed state store divestiture because he worries about increased availability and consumption of alcohol and resulting social ills.

DiSarro said Turzai should consider privatizing wine sales and evaluate results.

As he takes a more active role, Corbett must have a more convincing argument than he has used so far, especially given his relatively low public-approval rating, said Gerald Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh.

Shuster credits the Liquor Control Board with helping to stave off privatization through state store staff improvements, better product selection and more competitive prices.

“They’ve made giant strides toward jumping into a proactive consumer market,” Shuster said.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 and [email protected].


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