Pennsylvania alcohol sale reform caught in ‘Mexican standoff’

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — As everyone from beer retailers, the grocery industry and unionized workers fight for their well-being, a proposal to reform Pennsylvania’s alcohol sales system languished for another day in the state Senate on Tuesday, even as Gov. Tom Corbett urged action.

“It’s too many personalities — too many personalities and too many special interest groups that want this and want that,” state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, said. “It’s like a Mexican standoff.”

AT A STANDSTILL: Gov. Tom Corbett wants the Pennsylvania legislature to talk liquor sales reform, but it’s still proving a tough fight.

It’s been a slog for sure, even after the state House last year passed a historic privatization bill that would phase out the more than 600 state-run liquor stores.

The state Senate hasn’t been nearly as giddy about relinquishing the state’s grip on wine and liquor. Instead, the chamber has looked at convenience options, such as allowing consumers to buy up to three six-packs at grocery stores, allowing limited direct wine shipments and having Sunday and holiday hours at state stores.

That proposal, though, has yet to emerge from the state Senate. It was scheduled to be discussed at a Senate Appropriations Committee on June 9, but was not considered.

There’s no vote planned, either, as the Senate searches for 26 votes, said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester.

Corbett used his February budget address to say that 2014 should be the “last call” for state-run liquor sales. He looks ready to fight for that, even if it means a shorter summer break for lawmakers.

After three years of on-time budgets, Corbett said Tuesday he’s willing to miss the June 30 deadline this year. He listed liquor reform and pension reform as dominos that must fall before he even considers revenue generators to balance Pennsylvania’s flagging budget and perhaps save his election-year plans to funnel more money into education and human service programs.

The governor praised House Majority Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, for his “leadership” on the liquor issue, and said he was “confident” that the Senate could return a bill to the House.

“I will say the time for that debate is over,” Corbett said. “Now is the time to get that bill passed and we can move it over.”

It might not happen so simply. It’s a dogged issue largely because reforming the system has far-ranging effects, said Amy Christie, executive director of the Pennsylvania Tavern Association.

While Christie’s organization wants to preserve its members’ business investments, privatization also would impact the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, wine and spirit brokers and the labor union representing state store employees.

And throw the already privatized beer industry into the mix when talking about overhauling alcohol sales and that pulls in everything from the behemoth brewing companies such as MillerCoors to small craft brewers, Christie said.

“There are so many parts to the industry and the PLCB that many do not realize,” she said.

Mark Tanczos, president of the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, said there’s concern that a plan that started as liquor and wine privatization has morphed into a proposal that could pick winners and losers in the beer industry, which already is privatized.

“The beer distributors for 80 years have followed the rules that are currently there. That’s why I think it’s so hard to make changes in the beer industry,” Tanczos said.

While Tanczos said distributors have been asking for the ability to sell six-packs of beer, for now they’re just looking for a level of predictability that has disappeared as lawmakers consider what to do.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, acknowledged last week that the issue of liquor reform has been complicated by the diversity of opinions and interests in Pennsylvania. There’s also the question of how much control the state should sacrifice in the name of consumer convenience, he said.

“There’s just so many moving parts that it really is a complex issue, and that’s why it’s difficult to nail down 26 votes for something along those lines,” Costa said.

But until that happens, the standoff continues.

Contact Andrew Staub at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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