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Lawmaker: Liquor Privatization Distracting from State Budget

On the eve of a state Senate committee's first of three hearings on liquor privatization, some might say the issue of selling off the state wine and spirits stores is ripe for discussion.

Not the Senate President Pro Tem.

Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) said Monday he's "a little frustrated" that the liquor privatization issue is eclipsing what he thinks should be the central focus right now: the state budget, which is due in two months' time.

"We haven't had a meeting of substance on the budget yet, and it's almost May," Scarnati told attendees of the Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg.

Such a meeting is long overdue, he said - if only because if some form of liquor privatization does make it into law this year, it will come at some cost to the commonwealth.

"You cannot go in and shut the (Liquor Control Board) off like a light switch, and it's not going to cost the state budget something in this year and the following years," Scarnati said. "And we have to account for that. I'm fine to account for it, but we've got to start talking about the budget."

Scarnati noted the commonwealth hasn't taken in the kind of tax revenue the Corbett administration expected. Senate Appropriations Committee Minority Executive Director Randy Albright said Monday the state is $200 million below estimate so far for the year to date through the end of March. April collections aren't looking strong, either.

It's true that the budget is due in two months, and it may require some more tough calls, since state coffers are experiencing drought-like conditions. But Scarnati has long been skeptical of plans to sell off the state liquor stores.

He reiterated his concerns on Monday: that the plan passed by the House would make liquor retailers scarce in rural places like his own district and disrupt the business model of beer distributors and restaurants.

Moreover, Scarnati said, he's not keen on rushing a liquor privatization proposal to the governor's desk by the end of June (Corbett's preferred timetable). Similarly heavy lifts - like the Marcellus Shale impact fee Scarnati shepherded through the Legislature - took two years.

"We've got eight weeks," said Scarnati, panning back to the liquor issue. "Eight weeks. And the last thing I want to be part of is creating another system that doesn't work. Let's get it right. Let's get it right, and let's tell everybody who's interested in this issue the facts about what it is. It isn't just about state stores, it's about beer too."