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Second of Trio of Liquor Hearings: One Big Wish List

The chairman of a key Senate panel all but called a time of death for liquor privatization — at least, the effort to pass a measure before July.

After the second Senate Law and Justice Committee hearing on liquor, Chairman Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks) said liquor privatization isn't really a budget issue, and he's not going to try to draft a measure and pass it out of committee just because the governor says so.

"At this point, I'm still going to try to put it together in June, but if it doesn't, nothing would stop us from coming up with it and bringing it up to a vote in the fall," McIlhinney said. "We would have that session to do it as well."

McIlhinney has insisted he supports privatization and phasing out state stores, but he's faced criticism that he has eluded attempts to have him outline his position in detail.

McIlhinney heads the panel that would send a liquor privatization bill to the full Senate. He has said he's trying to find consensus, but during Tuesday's hearing, he noted the issue has metastasized from simple privatization to all-out "alcohol reform."

That point was underscored Tuesday: among those testifying before the panel were grocery store executives and groups representing beer distributors, taverns and wineries. Nearly every testifier had suggestions for how changes to the state's liquor laws should protect their corners of the industry or make their niche grow.

As was the case before the first hearing, some who had largely supportive things to say about the House's privatization plan said they were not allowed to testify, except in writing. Two beer distributors, not in agreement with the association representing roughly a third of their compatriots, lingered outside the hearing room offering interviews.

Among those testifying was Sky Cooper, president of Jacquin's Liquor Company, who shared his dream for opening a mammoth wine and spirits store in Philadelphia where his distillery is based.

"It would be an attraction," Cooper said. "People would come for the Liberty Bell, they'd go to the convention, they would visit the world's biggest wine and spirits shop. MADD mothers could have a booth there about, you know — alcohol, temperance."

Chortles came from the gallery. McIlhinney turn on his mic. "Wait a second!" said Cooper, apparently not finished.

One more hearing remains, scheduled for early June. McIlhinney said it will focus on wine and liquor suppliers and the logistics of privatization. He's defending the hearing process and taking shots at nonprofit groups that are lobbying lawmakers on the liquor issue.

"I can't write a bill that says we shouldn't philosophically be in the liquor business," McIlhinney said. "Doesn't work."

Critics have said McIlhinney is dragging his feet. He said he won't started drafting a proposal until after the June hearing.

He was asked if he's always been a procrastinator.

"I'm deliberative," he said with a grin.