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WATCHBLOG: Liquor debate live blog – GOP leaders say Corbett, Taylor made all the difference this time around

By   /   March 20, 2013  /   13 Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

Last June, the state House came within a handful (or two) of the necessary votes to pass a liquor privatization bill.

The difference between then and now, according to the House Republican leaders who engineered Thursday’s passage, primarily came down to two men – Gov. Tom Corbett and state Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee.

Taylor had been lukewarm about House Majority Leader Mike Turzai’s, R-Allegheny, liquor bill last session, and there were plenty of rumors swirling that he had been part of the dozen or so Republicans who defected from supporting the bill when it came to a head in June.

This time, he was a “yes” the whole way.

Turzai credited Taylor, but also praised Gov. Tom Corbett, who by all accounts was far more active (along with his staff) than he had been when the issue failed in 2012.

“It can’t get done if the governor is not out front for something this immense,” Turzai said. “The governor took the lead, and when we needed it, the capital was there.”

Corbett has always supported the policy of liquor privatization, but this year he needed to be a part of the bill’s success for political reasons, too.  He’s facing mounting pressure on the right to achieve a landmark legislative win before his re-election bid gets going next year.

With the bill safely out of the state House, all eyes turn to the Senate.  Earlier Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, gave indications there will be a long road ahead (see further down in this live blog).

But Corbett said he’s ready for the next step.

“We talk to the Senate and try to convince them that it is time to get us out of the business of selling alcohol,” Corbett said.

This is an update from 3/21/13 at 11:15 p.m.

After liquor defeat, Democrats declare “death of the moderate Republicans”

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

House Democrats presented a united front against the liquor privatization proposal during Thursday’s seven-hour debate. But their arguments about financial impact, public safety, job loss and valued assets fell on deaf ears across the aisle.

Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Centre, said the group of a dozen or so moderate Republicans that once existed no longer does. On liquor privatization, they choose to vote “right wing conservative,” he said.

“This was the death of the moderate Republican,” Hanna said. “There was only a handful of them that were with us. They’ve all joined the Tea Party at this point.”

Five Republicans voted against the privatization proposal.

Conservative groups had made a point to target Republicans thought to be swing votes on the issue in the weeks leading up to Thursday’s vote.  Unions and other groups in favor of keeping the state system were doing the same.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said Republican leadership did a lot of “arm twisting” to get the majority of votes to pass this.

Dermody disagreed that the passage of HB 790 meant Gov. Corbett is sharpening up his leadership skills.

“It took him two years, and it took him, from what we hear, a lot of arm breaking and twisting to get members to vote for this,” he said.

Now, Democrats are relying on the hope that the state Senate will amend the bill in a way that preserves the state system while increasing consumer choice, Dermody said.

“We can bring better convenience to the system while maintaining control,” Dermody said.

This is an update from 3/21/13 at 10:21 p.m.

House passes liquor privatization bill

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

After more than seven hours of debate Thursday, the state House voted 105-90 in favor of a bill to privatize the wholesale and retail sale of wine and spirits in Pennsylvania.

It is the first time a bill to privatize the sale of liquor in Pennsylvania has passed either chamber in the General Assembly since the end of Prohibition in 1933.

“We are moving the sale of wine and spirits to a place that is more convenient for the consumers of Pennsylvania while maintaining responsibility around the state,” said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.

The lengthy floor debate was marked by stark partisan differences, with Republicans touting the promise of better prices and convenience for consumers and pointing out the ideological conundrum of having the state sell alcohol with one hand while enforcing laws with the other.  Meanwhile, Democrats railed against the plan by saying it would make alcohol more readily available in poor communities, would give big businesses advantages over small ones and would result in thousands of state workers losing their jobs.

The bill will move to the state Senate for consideration, where it faces an uncertain future.

The privatization bill is now halfway to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk.  Three previous governors have tried to reach that goal without success.

This is an update from 3/21/13 at 8:30 p.m.

Turzai, after two years of effort, closes in on winning liquor vote in House

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

If you’re looking for a sign that the liquor privatization bill is headed for passage this afternoon in the state House, you probably can’t beat this (short of an actual roll call): House Majority Leader Mike Turzai spent the last 10 minutes talking with a group of visiting high school students in the Capitol rotunda.

TAKING A BREAK: House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, took a little break from the liquor debate to talk to a group of students on Thursday.

TAKING A BREAK: House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, took a little break from the liquor debate to talk to a group of students on Thursday.

Rather than twisting a few arms to make sure his members stayed in line or scratching together the necessary votes, the man who has led the charge on liquor privatization was talking to a group of people who looked too young to vote at all.

And after he was done, he told me that he feels “very positive” about the final vote, which is expected sometime in the next few hours, after the House wraps up a final round of floor debate.

“We think that the public wants to have the opportunity to go into a grocery store and buy a bottle of wine,” he said. “It’s one step at a time. It’s historic in that it has never passed the House of Representatives.”

But despite two years of hard work on the issue – at times facing criticism from others in the Capitol for too much of a single-minded focus on liquor privatization to the detriment of other important things – Turzai refused to take much credit for the final vote on Thursday.  He thanked Gov. Tom Corbett and other members of his caucus for their support.

Asked about Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the House plan earlier today (see the next post in this blog), Turzai said it did not dampen the moment for him.

Pileggi has made it clear that he is open to “this momentous legislation,” Turzai said.

This is an update from 3/21/13 at 3:30 p.m.

Pileggi says Senate will not simply move House bill to Corbett’s desk

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

As the House prepares for a historic vote to change how Pennsylvanians buy wine, liquor and beer, a key state Senate gave a warning Thursday that the bill will likely not move quickly through the upper chamber of the General Assembly.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, told reporters that senators have started having discussions about the liquor bill over the last two days as House support finally coalesced around a specific proposal.

But the senators have some of their own ideas to consider, he said.

“I don’t think anyone expects the Senate to simply take up the House bill and move it to the governor’s desk as is,” Pileggi said, though he added that he still needs to parse the specifics of the bill before offering any suggested changes of his own.

The state Senate has never seen liquor privatization as the same kind of priority that the state House has.  There is no one in the chamber’s leadership to grab the bill by the horns like House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, did in the Senate.

Case in point – less than two months ago, Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson said he would like to consider “modernizing” the existing state-owned liquor system with changes to pricing and store hours, for example, in an attempt to produce more revenue.

Pileggi on Thursday said the Senate would not be driven by ideological questions about the appropriateness of the state’s role in selling alcohol.

“What people in my district want and what people across Pennsylvania want is improvement in the selection, price and convenience of buying liquor,” he said.

This is an update from 3/21/13 2:47 p.m.

Party-line committee vote sends bill to floor over Democratic concerns about revenues

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – Before the full House of Representatives votes on liquor privatization, the House Appropriations Committee hashed out the numbers of what selling off the state monopoly could mean for the commonwealth.

The sale of new retail and wholesale licenses outlined in House Bill 790 will generate $1.1 billion, said House Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware. More than half of that, about $573 million, is expected to come from the sale of wholesale licenses alone, and about $400 million from retail license fees.

Democrats, unified against the privatization proposal, took the committee meeting as an opportunity to poke holes in the plan and question projections and analysis.

They say the total funds from licenses could be as low as $425 million, and the state would lose $170 million annually by selling off the system.

Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, said the House Republican estimates assume that all of the new licenses will be purchased.

“We have nobody who’s stepped forward to promise to take these licenses,” he said.

And while the proposal directs all new license fees to a restrict fund, there’s no language in the bill that directs what it can be used for. Gov. Tom Corbett’s privatization proposal said the money will be used for a block grant program to provide $1 billion to public schools, but there’s no mention of that program in the legislation, or of a corresponding bill at this time.

Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Philadelphia, pointed to the current Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board as a valuable asset with “incredibly consistent” annual growth.

“If we’re just looking at the numbers, these numbers just don’t add up,” he said, “and if we’re looking to drive the best deal possible for the taxpayers this falls well short of it.”

This is an update from 3/21/13 at 1:28 p.m.

House vote on liquor expected Thursday, Senate still a huge question mark

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

History could be made on the Pennsylvania House floor as soon as Thursday if lawmakers approve a liquor privatization bill.

Speaker of the House Sam Smith, R-Jefferson

Speaker of the House Sam Smith, R-Jefferson

But even then, more debates line the road to getting rid of the state control system.

House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson said he is confident the House will approve the bill and send it over to the Senate – but with the full knowledge that plan will change.

“At some point, we have to grind out the difference between their versions and our version,” Smith said. “The governor obviously has one big vote, too.”

The Senate has tended to favor modernizing the state system as opposed to selling it off, a point Smith acknowledged Wednesday.

But “everybody accepts the system needs to be more consumer friendly,” he said.

Smith said he believes the House Republicans have enough support to pass the privatization bill as it currently exists, despite the fact members of the caucus have expressed opposition. Most of that comes down to conversation, he said, and talking over concerns with members.

“We all know this bill isn’t going to the governor’s desk as it is, so there’s another day to keep working the issue, another day to try to find a more acceptable piece to all the stakeholders, and I would argue that is the next thing that would happen,” Smith said.

This is an update from 3/20/13 at 5:55 p.m.

Privatization teed up for final House vote on Thursday

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

Democrats withdrew about 100 amendments from consideration on Wednesday and the Republican-backed liquor privatization bill is set up for final passage in the state House on Thursday.

“We’re moving forward and the people of Pennsylvania are going to be very pleased,” said state Rep. Mauree Gingrich, R-Lebanon, a proponent of privatization.

Democrats seemed poised to hold up the bill for most of the day and well into the night when they filed more than 100 amendments to HB 790.  But after the Republican majority held together to defeat a major amendment sponsored by state Rep. Paul Costa, D-Allegheny, that would have completely gutted the privatization bill, Democrats backed away from the rest.

State Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, called the Costa proposal a bellwether for where members stood on the proposal.

“If there wasn’t support for that amendment to change the whole approach, there wasn’t going to be support for other amendments along the way,” Reed said.

But State Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, disagreed with that assessment.

“It was a really bad bill no matter how you cut it,” he said. “The best you could do was doll it up a little.”

Sturla said the proposal would leave many of the confusing and complicated rules in place for how and where Pennsylvania consumers can buy alcohol – for example, beer sales will still be limited to beer distributors and a small number of grocery stores, even as wine and liquor sales become more widespread.

So was Wednesday’s maneuver by the Democrats the legislative equivalent of a losing team letting the other side dribble out the clock at the end of a basketball game, or was it a stroke of genius like Wellington’s strategic but temporary retreat at Waterloo?

We’ll know tomorrow.

The bill was sent to the House Appropriations Committee, which will hold a meeting on Thursday morning at 10 a.m.

Speaker of the House Sam Smith expects to hold a final vote on the liquor bill on Thursday afternoon.

This is an update from 3/20/13 at 4:45 p.m.

Union heads targeting swing votes in state House

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

To Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 which represents about 3,500 liquor store employees, privatization in Pennsylvania may come down to about 15 members.

LOOK FOR THE UNION LABEL: Union members have swarmed the capitol for weeks in opposition to the liquor store privatization bill. Today the state House is debating the plan.

LOOK FOR THE UNION LABEL: Union members have swarmed the capitol for weeks in opposition to the liquor store privatization bill. Today the state House is debating the plan.

And his union has been all over the Capitol to keep those votes from swinging in favor of House Bill 790.

“Everybody on all sides of this issue knows this all comes down to about 15 people, and so we’ve been trying to stay close to the 15,” Young said.

Union members in their bright yellow shirts proclaiming their opposition to the privatization plan from House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, have swarmed the Capitol complex by the dozens for weeks, circulating one-page talking points to lawmakers, media and staffers.

Young said the union presence was the broad-based push that was part of a two-prong attack on the liquor plan.  The second part involves those key swing votes in the legislature who Young and other top union leaders have been closely monitoring.

Young wouldn’t name names, but he said those swing lawmakers were getting squeezed on both sides.

House Republican leadership, he said, is “pulling out all the tricks,” to pull together enough votes to pass the plan, including getting “abused by leadership in their caucus”  – which he said would take the form of threatening committee assignments, staffing changes, office locations and leadership support for members’ future bills.

This is an update from 3/20/13 at 3:16 p.m.

The showdown beings…..

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

Having returned from their closed-door strategy session and run through a series of other bills on the day’s calendar, the state House is finally getting down to the business of the liquor privatization debate.

It’s going to be a long one, folks.  There are 124 amendments, at last count, that have to be dealt with before the day is through.

Most of those amendments (about 110 of them) are from Democratic members.  And we’ve been told that the entire Democratic caucus is a united “no” on HB 790 (the liquor bill) as it is currently written, so most of those amendments are likely to be offed by the Republican majority in one way or another.

The Republican amendments – particularly those offered by Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, Liquor Control Committee, and state Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks – are worthy of some attention.

Taylor got to speak first on the floor, offering a technical amendment to the bill (that’s legislative jargon for “boring amendment that doesn’t change the point of the bill.”)

The amendment passed, 110-89.  Get used to hearing those numbers if you’re watching the debate today.

So, yeah, we’re off to a rip-roaring start.

This is an update from 3/20/13 at 2:30 p.m.

House GOP fractured over beer distributors

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

The state House is scheduled to begin debate on the liquor privatization bill as early as 2 p.m. this afternoon.

But as members of the majority Republican caucus were heading into a behind-closed-doors meeting at noon, it was clear there were still some fractures to be settled.

Rep. Scott Petri

Rep. Scott Petri

State Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks, who has a close relationship with some of the state’s biggest beer distributors, said he would not vote for the privatization bill as it stands right now.  He said it needs “some serious amendments” and that it would certainly be amended at some point on Tuesday.

Petri has filed at least two amendments for consideration on the House floor.

Under the bill as it is currently written, beer distributors would have the right of first refusal to buy liquor licenses  allowing them to become one-stop shops for beer, wine and liquor.

But Petri said the beer distributors would prefer to “just be beer guys.”

“They’re not really even interested in being wine and liquor stores,” he said. “And they are very, very fearful of the amount of competition” from grocery stores and other license holders.

Rep. Seth Grove

Rep. Seth Grove

State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, who described himself as a “locked in ‘yes’” on the liquor bill, said the beer distributors are already getting nearly everything they wanted out of this proposal and are just looking to preserve their own monopoly.

“If I’m a beer distributor, I’d be salivating at this,” Grove said. “To me, it seems like all the benefits go to them.”

The beer distributors seemed to score a big win on Monday when the House Liquor Control Committee removed provisions from the bill that would have allowed grocery stores to sell beer in direct competition with distributors.

Our very own Melissa Daniels covered that story yesterday and is working on a more detailed look at the role the beer distributors have played in the liquor privatization debate – stay tuned here for that.

The bill needs 101 votes in the state House to pass.  With few votes likely from minority Democrats, that leaves the 111 Republican members of the chamber to carry the bill across the finish line.  The question remains: if Petri and other GOP members are swayed by the beer distributors’ concerns, is that enough to sink the bill?

This is an update from 3/20/13 at 12:18 p.m.