Is it state’s last call for liquor con­trol?

The Southern Berks News - - OPINION -

Is it last call for Penn­syl­va­nia’s booze mo­nop­oly?

Slowly but surely, the Key­stone State is do­ing what so many other states al­ready do – lis­ten to their ci­ti­zens when it comes to com­mon-sense rules and reg­u­la­tions on the sale of beer, wine and spir­its.

Gone are the days of go­ing up to the counter and in­form­ing a prickly clerk what you want. Cus­tomers now can ac­tu­ally wan­der the aisles of the so­called state stores. Of course, they’re called that for a rea­son. They are owned and op­er­ated by the state, which con­tin­ues to run a mo­nop­oly on the sale of al­co­hol in the state.

Beer is now sold at many su­per­mar­kets, al­though you have to en­ter a spe­cially des­ig­nated part of the store and pay for your pur­chase there. And you are lim­ited to two six-packs at a time. If you want a case, you have to visit your lo­cal beer dis­trib­u­tor. Re­cently these small busi­ness folks have got­ten a bit of a break of their own, as they bat­tle the mono­lith gro­cery store and re­tail chains that are look­ing to horn in on their busi­ness.

You can now buy a six-pack or sin­gle at your lo­cal beer dis­trib­u­tors.

Su­per­mar­kets also have been given the green light to sell wine, again with many of the same lim­i­ta­tions.

This week in Harrisburg, House mem­bers took what is per­haps the big­gest step yet to­ward what many res­i­dents want – pri­va­ti­za­tion of the sys­tem.

The House passed four mea­sures that would dras­ti­cally al­ter the land­scape of al­co­hol sales in the state.

Two of them would al­low re­tail­ers to sell wine and liquor un­der one roof. Right now the only place that can do that is the state-owned stores. A sec­ond would ex­pand liquor sales to many of those same su­per­mar­kets, restau­rants and ho­tels that cur­rently sell beer and wine un­der their restau­rant li­censes.

House Bill 975, spon­sored by House Speaker Mike Turzai, RAl­legheny, would ac­tu­ally al­low all su­per­mar­kets – not just those with the needed seat­ing ca­pac­ity – to sell wine. It’s been tagged a move to “free the wine” in Penn­syl­va­nia.

House Bill 991, spon­sored by Rep. Adam Har­ris, R-Franklin-Ju­ni­ata-Mif­flin, would let pri­vate en­trepreneurs sell wine and liquor through a new class of re­tail li­censes. In ef­fect, this would pro­vide di­rect pri­vate com­pe­ti­tion to the state stores when it comes to the sale of liquor.

It was left to Turzai, maybe the state’s fore­most pro­po­nent of pri­va­ti­za­tion, to once again use the nu­clear op­tion on booze sales in Pa. Turzai’s two mea­sures would stop the state’s mo­nop­oly on wine whole­sal­ing, while the other would get the Com­mon­wealth out of wine and liquor sales al­to­gether.

They passed the House and were sent to the Se­nate, where their fate is much more un­cer­tain. The House has done this be­fore, only to see the mea­sures stall in the Se­nate. Then there is Demo­cratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who op­poses any fur­ther pri­va­ti­za­tion; he be­lieves the changes made in the sys­tem are just dandy.

All of this will play out un­der the back­drop of the state’s mas­sive, $3 bil­lion deficit. Ex­pect Repub­li­cans to push for the rev­enue that could be found in sell­ing off the state store sys­tem and sell­ing new li­censes to pri­vate en­ter­prise, while Wolf and the union that rep­re­sents all those state store jobs will warn of sig­nif­i­cant rev­enue loss from year to year after the ini­tial sale of the li­censes.

You might say the fight over al­co­hol sales is com­ing to a “head” in the state Capi­tol.

It will pit pow­er­ful in­flu­ences, Repub­li­cans who hold sig­nif­i­cant ma­jori­ties in both the House and Se­nate, vs. Demo­crat Gov. Wolf and the unions who op­pose pri­va­ti­za­tion.

But the wild card in this fight – as it al­most al­ways is – is the red ink flow­ing from the cap­i­tal, enough to make all those bleary, red-eyed politi­cians stand up and take no­tice.

Bot­tom line is the state needs rev­enue. Lots of it.

Some of it no doubt will come from that old standby, an in­crease in le­gal gam­ing in the state, and per­haps the in­tro­duc­tion of on­line gam­ing.

But with Repub­li­cans dead set against new tax ini­tia­tives, and even Wolf seem­ing un­will­ing to go down that road again, look for our rep­re­sen­ta­tives to fo­cus on al­co­hol sales as a pos­si­ble sav­ior.

Let the bar­gain­ing and deal­mak­ing be­gin.

Bet­ter keep a bot­tle or six­pack handy.

This could be a bruis­ing fight.

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