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Is Prohibition Finally Dying in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania remains one of only two states where the government operates a monopoly on liquor sales.

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.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, the union representing the approximately 3,000 employees in the state-run liquor stores, has been the most vocal opponent of privatization.

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.

David Neamand January 21, 2013 at 04:35 PM
Oh please give me a break! Privatizing will only help the consumer by giving them choice. This is America where private enterprise is supposed to be the norm. I have listen to those same tired objections for 20 years. Currently I drive to Md where I can find the wine I want to buy at a price I want to spend. Here it is between 12 and 15 % higher. Are there some buys? yes but by and large no. And no, I am not going to turn into an alcoholic just because it is cheaper. I have news for the both of you, kids who want booze are already getting it, so don't use that one on me either.
David Neamand January 21, 2013 at 04:36 PM
Amen brother! Don't hold your breath though, they have been talking about this one for 20 years
Morning Dew January 21, 2013 at 09:12 PM
This can get done but several stakeholders will have to compromise. There is more than meets the eye regarding alcohol distribution in the State.
Woosh January 22, 2013 at 01:41 PM
Let's face it. The only reason that this has hot happened yet is because it will expose the 18% Johnstown Flood Tax which has become a golden goose for the general fund. In order to shelf the discussion a new union contract was signed last year that lasts through 2015. I have lived in CA where you can go to the supermarket and buy everything in one place. It is a great system where prices do come down and choices go up. Safeway buys wine wholesale from vineyards taking away some of the industry mark-up allowing consumers to buy bottles cheaper than at any of the vineyards in Napa.
Tricia January 22, 2013 at 08:07 PM
Oh for goodness sake you cry over alcoholic parents, brothers sisters, wives and husbands who are alcoholics even with these laws in effect. Changing the way the government monopolizes everything will not slow the disease or it's process. I was a child of an alcoholic mother. So I know what I speak, the revenue is all the state cares about. What all the other states doing? You want to tax the crap out of us for alcohol then do it. Just like cigarettes, gas taxes, death taxes just bleed us all dry in the name of the almighty dollar but don't ever think that your alcoholics will be worse when its no longer privatized...that's a joke where theres a will......and yes we are all not as stupid as we look. We know all about the Johnstown Flood Tax, room on shelves in stores? Please.....I've been in Cali I know the system works and works well. Pa is such a backwoods state!

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