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Politics & Government

Turzai: Liquor Privatization Not Dead Yet

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania went home for the summer without voting on a plan pushed by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) to privatize liquor sales in the state, but he said the idea will be back under consideration in the fall.

Turzai's plan calls for the state to close its more than 600 Wine & Spirits Stores and then issue 1,600 licenses to sell wine and distilled spirits. Beer distributors will be given first crack at purchasing the licenses. The remainder would be sold to the highest bidders.

The plan ran up against Democrats in the house during a short floor debate. "Not one Democrat supported privatization. They all stood hand-in-hand with the clerk's union. I was really disappointed with that," said Turzai after the legislature went on summer recess. "You just could not get any cross support on liquor privatization, yet the vast majority of citizens want it." Republicans control both the House and the Senate.

Turzai was pointing at recent polling data, including a September 2011 survey run by Quinnipiac University, which found 62% of Pennsylvanians were in favor of the general idea. "It's bi-partisan. It doesn't matter what your background is. Union members support it," said Turzai. "It's these special interests."

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union represents more than 3,500 state store clerks and has launched a strong lobbying effort against the idea of privatization. Members had been working without a contract since July 2011 but the union inked a deal in June that runs through 2015. Part of that deal stipulates that any future liquor sales licenses holder hire displaced union members with pay and benefits equal to those provided for under the contract. Many see that as a death knell for the privatization effort.

Turzai said he would not be deterred by the contract, the lobbying effort or his troubles in finding the needed votes.

"What's happened is it's been teed up. Everybody [in Harrisburg] is just saying, 'Come on, get this done, get this done,' and I think the pressure is going to develop, especially on the Democrats, because I think they are going to look silly, especially before an election, if they are voting no," said Turzai.

The last two Republican governors in Pennsylvania (Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburg) have tried to sell the stores. Turzai believes his effort, with the support of Governor Tom Corbett, is the closest anyone has come.

The House and Senate have only a few weeks of session scheduled after the summer break and before the November election. Leaders in both chambers have said they will not return for a lame duck session.