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Politics & Government

First Senate Hearing Doesn't Bode Well for Liquor Plan

Sen. Chuck McIlhinney has said he’s working to find consensus on a liquor privatization proposal, but you wouldn’t know it from his Tuesday committee hearing on the issue.

The chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee plays a central role in whether the House-approved plan to phase out state wine and spirits stores advances in the Senate. Tuesday marked the first of what he says will be three hearings on the issue.

It offered a buffet of detractors. There were law enforcement groups and experts on alcohol abuse experts, squinting their eyes at the projected costs associated with the privatization proposal sent over to the Senate and how many additional alcohol retailers it would yield.

“There should be a 10-year analysis on the governor’s website now,” said David Bender, head of Compass Mark, an alcohol abuse organization in Lancaster County. He added that alcohol abuse and related societal ills would increase if alcohol were made more accessible under privatization.

“We don’t see it being a dramatic, overnight increase, but it will increase,” Bender said.

Then there was Deb Beck, head of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of PA, who fired back at a letter from the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association that said the hearing’s testimony bench was stacked with people intent on tugging on heartstrings.

“I’m kind of fixated on why that’s a problem,” Beck said. “Shouldn’t your heart and your brain come to work together on this, I would expect?”

Rounding out the end of the day’s testimony were a slate of Bucks County teenagers, under the legal drinking age, who said they would be able to persuade their friends working at gas stations convenience stores to sell them alcohol under the House’s privatization plan (it would lift the prohibition on selling alcohol at gas stations).

“Without a doubt,” said high school junior Dakota Danay.

“You would get alcohol,” McIlhinney said. It was he who had posed the hypothetical scenario to the teenagers.

“Yeah,” Danay said.

McIlhinney acknowledged, after the hearing, that the testimony was “on the critical side,” but he said subsequent hearings will provide a platform for the “other side.”

“I think it was an important part to get that out first,” said McIlhinney, referring to the social issues discussed during the Tuesday testimony. “When you start talking about the rest of the privatization and the financial issues, that’s a little bit more detail-oriented and more of a policy with our budget.”

McIlhinney, a Bucks County lawmaker, has made no secret of his skepticism of the House’s privatization measure, and other Senate Republicans are of the same mind. On Monday, the Senate President Pro Tem said lawmakers were giving insufficient attention to the state budget, and that he’d like to see more multitasking in the Legislature on the big issues.

A second hearing is expected to be held in mid-May with a focus on alcohol retailers and wholesalers. McIlhinney said a third hearing will follow, and he hopes to roll out his own liquor privatization proposal in mid-June.