Is it state’s last call for liquor control?
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.