Contact Us Today

Pennsylvania liquor privatization bill on life support in the Senate

First came the cops. Then came the drug-and-alcohol counselors. Next up was the moms. And finally, the kids.

All of them told a state Senate committee Tuesday they oppose a plan to privatize wine and spirits sales and make beer more readily available under a House-approved bill supported by Gov. Tom Corbett.

Law enforcement officers, represented by union officials, said they oppose House Bill 790 because it lacks extra financial support for police facing a potential rise in emergency calls at liquor establishments, on roads and in homes. And the counselors, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and high school students warned that the bill could trigger more alcoholism, violence and death without providing extra money to ward off those social ills.

“I’m not against privatization if you can limit access [to alcohol],” said Deb Beck, president of Drug and Alcohol Services Providers of Pennsylvania. “But I have never seen a proposal that does not increase access.”

Corbett’s state police commissioner and acting health secretary attended the hearing and offered written testimony in favor of the House bill, but they were not asked to speak.

Indeed, the one-sided panel signaled in stark terms that the House-passed bill is on life support in the Senate. That means Corbett’s vision of privatization is unlikely to become law. What, if anything, will pass to replace Pennsylvania’s dated booze-distribution system remains unknown.

This much is clear: A key Senate committee chairman effectively pulled the plug on the House’s version of privatization just two months before a June 30 deadline for a new state budget.

“I am on record saying I will not support the House bill,” Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, chairman of the Law and Justice Committee, said after the hearing.

Corbett issued a statement thanking McIlhinney for holding the hearing and for focusing on societal issues. Corbett said H.B. 790 does call for increased enforcement and penalties that better protect citizens than exist under current liquor laws.

“We know that consumer choice and convenience and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive,” Corbett said.

But time is ticking to get a liquor deal done. The Senate leadership is letting McIlhinney take the lead in crafting a possible compromise.

With strong support from Corbett and House Majority leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, the House passed the liquor bill 105-90 on March 21. It would eliminate the state’s wholesale liquor purchases, close the 600 retail state stores, and issue up to 1,800 liquor licenses to privately owned outlets while also allowing restaurants, taverns and grocery stores to sell more alcohol for consumers to take home.

The House vote moved the bill to the Senate committee, chaired by McIlhinney and Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny. Only a rarely invoked parliamentary maneuver could move it to the full Senate without their say-so.

On Monday, Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, bemoaned the time being taken up by the liquor debate. Other matters, such as transportation funding and the budget, need attention, he said.

The next day, McIlhinney and Ferlo held their hearing. They have scheduled more hearings through June.

Tuesday’s panel was set up to discuss potential policing and societal problems tied to H.B. 790, McIlhinney said. By nature, those topics would generate some form of opposition to expanded liquor and beer sales, McIlhinney said, and that is why the testimony seemed so one-sided.

The next hearing, May 14, will tackle business issues related to privatization, and Corbett will be invited to testify at the third and final hearing in early June, McIlhinney said. After those hearings, McIlhinney said, he will float his own legislation on privatization because his committee will not vote on the House bill.

McIlhinney declined to offer specifics of what his bill may look like when he introduces it in mid-June. But he said based on Tuesday’s testimony it will be different from what he has previously proposed:

•Keep the state’s wholesale liquor purchasing business.

•Expand the retail sale of wine and spirits.

•Give beer distributors the ability to hold additional licenses.

Senate Democrats, who unanimously oppose the House plan, have their own version of liquor reform. It is based on Ferlo’s bill, which would retain every aspect of the state store system while also giving it more freedom to expand hours and pricing.

On Tuesday, Ferlo criticized the House bill. He said it would violate current law against open alcoholic containers in cars because it would allow taverns to sell customers a bottle they can unseal in the tavern and reseal before getting back in their car.

Sen. Richard L. Alloway II, R-Adams, said the bill does not increase the risk of having alcohol in cars as Ferlo claimed. How else do consumers get it home from state stores? he asked.

But McIlhinney sided with Ferlo, saying the House bill does appear to violate the open container law and would have to be changed.

Source: The Morning Call,0,6598294.story