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Liquor privatization faces uncertain future after passing House

By   /   March 2, 2015  /   No Comments

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — For the second straight legislative session, state House Republicans say it’s time to privatize liquor and wine stores.

One key lawmaker is proclaiming the government monopoly on adult beverages is destined to fall.

“There is an inevitable feeling about this right now, that we’re relentlessly moving toward privatization,” said state Rep. Chris Ross, chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee. “And I think many people that have been in opposition are beginning to become resigned to the fact that it is coming.”

That’s a bold statement, considering plenty of conservative, privatization advocates don’t know whether 2015 will be the year Pennsylvania finally stops making its residents buy booze from the government.

Photo courtesy of Ballotpedia

TESTING FATE: State Rep. Chris Ross, the chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee, said there’s a sense that privatization is inevitable.

That’s largely because Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, opposes privatization. Republicans also could run into problems before the legislation, House Bill 466, has a chance to get to Wolf.

Just like the previous time the House voted for privatization, the proposal faces an uncertain future in the state Senate.  Lawmakers there are interested in improving consumer convenience and selection, but aren’t as adamant about privatization as the House.

State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, last week said privatization would not come up before appropriations hearings, which are scheduled to begin mid-March.

“It hasn’t been one of our top priorities at this point in time,” Corman said, indicating that public pension reform is the main objective for his caucus.

The uncertainties raise the question of whether Republicans who control the Legislature squandered their best opportunity for privatization when they failed to get a law to GOP Gov. Tom Corbett before Wolf ousted him in November.

“There were a number of missed opportunities that existed. Certainly, it would have been better to be able to accomplish it last session, but that shouldn’t mean that it’s no longer a priority,” said Neal Lesher, a lobbyist with the National Federation of Independent Business.

The bill also has been sent to the Senate Law and Justice Committee, chaired by state Sen. Chuck McIlhinney. The Bucks County Republican last session presented his own liquor privatization proposal, which differs from the House version.

For now, senators are getting essentially the same legislation that stalled in their chamber.

House Bill 466 would phase out the state’s about 600 wine and spirits stores and give beer distributors the first crack at licenses that would allow them to sell beer, wine and liquor. Grocery stores, already allowed to sell beer with the proper license, could also sell wine.

Increased competition from supermarkets, who have already been siphoning beer sales, might not be agreeable longtime beer distributors who have built their businesses under the existing rules.

Jason High, chief of staff to state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, said there probably is broader support for liquor privatization this session, but said his boss believes reforms to the beer industry need to be addressed separately from wine and liquor.

“Beer is where things get really sticky over there,” High said.

But House Speaker Mike Turzai, the main sponsor of HB 466, said he believes the Senate will be more receptive this time.

Like the House, the GOP built on its majority in the Senate and then elected a new floor leader in Corman. Three new Republican state senators also came from the House and voted for the privatization bill last year.  Another freshman senator, Camera Bartolotta, R-Beaver, supports privatization, too.

“It’s 2015, and we don’t sell buggy whips anymore,” she said.

Even if Republican lawmakers can get a bill to Wolf’s desk, it’d be facing an almost certain veto. Democratic lawmakers expect Wolf to address liquor in his Tuesday budget address, and his press secretary, Jeffrey Sheridan, said the governor supports reforms such as lifting Sunday sales limits and putting more state stores in supermarkets.

“The governor just does not support privatizing the liquor system. He supports improving it,” Sheridan said.

That makes privatization far from inevitable, at least as long as Wolf is in office. Turzai and Ross still aren’t giving up hope that Wolf might budge.

“We think he’ll see reason in time,” Ross said.


Andrew formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.