By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – While all eyes in the state Capitol were trained on the glittering rotunda for the swearing-in of a new attorney general, Corbett administration officials were hard at work Tuesday afternoon crafting a proposal that might finally lift Pennsylvania out of last vestiges of the Prohibition Era.
After years of failure, there is a chance 2013 will be the year Pennsylvania ditches the state monopoly for liquor sales.
Sources who have attended a series of meeting with the administration in recent weeks to help craft a still-unfinished proposal are hopeful that an announcement will be made in the next two weeks – before Gov. Tom Corbett gives his annual budget address, scheduled for Feb. 5.
Several people with knowledge of the discussions say the administration is taking the lead on the issue this time, a notable shift from how Corbett has handled privatization during his first two years in office, when he would make public statements of support but often follow that up by telling lawmakers to put a bill on his desk before he would discuss specifics.
Signs now point to the governor taking the lead.
“We are seeing signs the administration will be a big part of the fight, leading from the front with a plan and a purpose that answers a broad-based bipartisan call from his constituents to give them choice and convenience,” said Jay Ostrich, communications director for the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank pushing for privatization.
Ostrich was one of several individuals summoned to the Capitol on Tuesday for a closed-doors meeting with administration staffers while Corbett attended the swearing-in of Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, five floors down in the rotunda.
Those who attended Tuesday’s meeting and others who have worked with the administration on crafting the proposal have described it as a painstaking process that is attempting to fit multiple puzzle pieces together in order to revamp Pennsylvania’s complex and often arcane laws governing the sale of alcohol.
Licensed beer distributors in Pennsylvania are allowed to sell only cases and kegs of beer. Restaurants, bars and taverns can sell only six-packs. Some grocery stores have obtained restaurant licenses to sell six-packs.
For those with stronger tastes, liquor is available for purchase only at the roughly 620 stores owned and operated by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, a state agency that determines pricing and availability for all items in all stores.
The administration has been tight-lipped about the privatization plan, but Eric Shirk, a spokesman for Corbett, said there are several goals including “consumer choice, increased convenience and getting the state out of the liquor business.”
During the past two years, Corbett has repeatedly pointed out the contradiction between the state’s role in selling alcohol — and advertising its sale to boost the bottom line of the state liquor stores — and its law enforcement role when it comes to the purchase and consumption of alcohol.
Shirk declined to comment on the timing for an announcement saying the proposal is not yet finalized.
But talks are ongoing with key members in the Legislature as well.
“Ultimately, everyone wants to see better and greater consumer choice, the question is how do we get there,” said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, the most vocal legislative leader on liquor privatization during the previous session.
Miskin said Turzai would not be introducing legislation until after Corbett made his plans public, another sign the governor intends to be out in front on this issue in 2013.
Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce, was one of several people invited to the governor’s office this week to weigh in on the liquor plan. He said Pennsylvania needs rethink how alcohol is sold.
The final plan should include more retail locations, including grocery stores and convenience stores, he said.
“Our view is that simply changing the person behind the counter isn’t good enough,” Barr said Tuesday.
Echoing the views of others who attended Tuesday’s meeting and spoke off-the-record, Barr said there was no proposal “on the table” and he had not seen anything in writing. The administration is looking at a variety of ideas, he said.
But everyone interviewed expect a lengthy fight with the entrenched interests of the existing liquor system.
They and other opponents have argued that privatization actually will result in fewer options for consumers because grocery stores and convenience stores do not have the space to stock the wide array of choices that some of the largest state-owned liquor stores do.
The Malt Beverage Distribution Association of Pennsylvania, which represents beer distributors in the state, opposed a Turzai-sponsored plan last year to allow beer distributors to sell wine and liquor, citing concerns about competition with other retailers.
Ostrich said the governor should give the people of Pennsylvania what they want — unlimited choice and greater convenience.
“We believe that happens when bread, beer and Bordeaux are bought all on privately-run shelves, and we certainly hope any plan coming from the governor has these elements as a strong part of it,” he said.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.