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Politics & Government

Seeing Double, Senate Panel Approves Alcohol Sales Plans

A plan to expand access to wine, beer, and booze is advancing in the state Senate, though more changes are likely, and Republican support is far from certain.

The Senate's counter-offer to the House's bid to privatize the state's liquor system cleared a key committee by a close vote. Technically, the panel signed off on two bills — identical twin proposals that would allow certain retailers to sell beer, wine and liquor, and allow for the Liquor Control Board to discern when to shut down state stores due to anemic profits.

In the process of the committee vote, the House's plan to phase out state liquor stores and sell the commonwealth's wholesale operation was officially deleted. It was replaced with the same language in a Senate plan authored by Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks) and unveiled last week.

A Senate GOP spokesman said the two proposals were approved for procedural purposes. (He demurred when asked if one bill might be gutted again and replaced with language to make it even more narrowly tailored to expand access to beer alone.)

McIlhinney called the panel vote a starting point.

"I put a proposal out there, and through this week it could easily get done if there's compromise and desire on not just the Senate, but on the House and the governor's part as well," he said.

Compromise is the only way this measure makes it to the governor's desk. The twin bills don't include the privatization of the state wholesale wine and liquor operation, an essential component for House Republicans and the governor.

Even Senate Republican support for the plan is uncertain. The chamber's President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati said he still has concerns about the bill, but voted for it in committee to move it along.

McIlhinney stressed that the proposal's progress won't be dictated by the frenzy to finalize the state budget.

"I've been on the record for months saying this was not a budget issue," McIlhinney said. "It was something that the governor would like to see done during the budget, but there is nothing tied to the budget itself here, and this could easily be something that we could do in the fall."

Senate GOP spokesman Erik Arneson said a full Senate vote on the proposals could be as early as Thursday.