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Politics & Government

With Liquor Stores in Hot Seat, PA Lawmakers Linger on Modernization Ideas

Siri Schwartzman/Flickr

Legislation is coming soon to tee-up a liquor privatization plan unveiled by Governor Corbett, even as lawmakers appear to be toying with the idea of incremental changes more than major overhaul.

At a routine budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, the emphasis on modernization versus privatization didn’t bode well for the effort to sell off the state’s roughly 600 liquor stores.

"We are going to fight like hell to make this system be more sustainable now and into the future by getting real about what the opportunities for a great state store system provide," said Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny) who called the current privatization plan "DOA in the senate."

Supporters of the governor’s plan say Pennsylvanians are regularly annoyed by the state’s liquor laws requiring them to make one stop for wine and another stop for beer. But at the hearing, Sen. John Gordner (R-Columbia) congratulated members of the Liquor Control Board on its efforts to make state liquor stores more customer-friendly.

“The state stores of the 70s and 80s are certainly not the state stores of today in regard to appearance, convenience, availability, et cetera, and I’ve certainly heard that from my constituents,” said Gordner.

Republicans and Democrats alike talked up proposals that would continue the state stores’ makeover, rather than sell them off altogether.

LCB member Robert Marcus said the board supports reforms and is ready to implement them: things like allowing wineries to ship their products directly to Pennsylvania consumers and extending store hours.

“Increase the hours. Increase the stores that are open,” said Marcus. “We know that we’ll make between $10 million and $15 million more, net profit, per year, and this is what the consumers want. We want it, the consumers want it. We can’t get it through the Legislature.”

That last bit was a common refrain from the LCB members sitting before Senate lawmakers. Some senators have already introduced so-called modernization proposals, like loosening the restrictions on what quantity of drinks a beer distributor or bar could sell. The Senate President Pro Tem, Joe Scarnati, has repeatedly voiced preference for such changes over liquor privatization.

“It’s déjà vu. Three years ago we were here talking about most of those initiatives and the Senate’s been very supportive of those initiatives,” said Marcus. “We just can’t get it through the House.”

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai plans next week to introduce a liquor privatization plan based on Gov. Corbett’s proposal. The plan would sell off the state liquor stores and put the money collected from that and the sale of liquor licenses toward grants for schools.

Ferlo called the state store system "great" in the hearing and noted that it pumps $500 million into the state's coffers each year.  "We would rather focus our attention and energies on improving the system and addressing some of the concerns raised by customer."