HARRISBURG – The two members of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Monday made their case for preserving the more than 600 state stores that sell wine and liquor in Pennsylvania, even though one said he personally supports privatizing the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, board Chairman Joseph “Skip” Brion and Robert Marcus described recent efforts to enhance customer convenience and expressed frustration over the Legislature’s reluctance to further expand sales.
More than 100 people, many wearing the familiar yellow T-shirts of the main state-store employee union, packed the hearing room in a show of support for the board and opposition to Gov. Tom Corbett’s sweeping privatization proposal.
With the number of supermarkets now licensed to sell beer at nearly 160 and climbing in the wake of court decisions allowing the practice under certain conditions, the agency is relocating state stores as their leases expire so drinkers don’t have to make separate trips to buy groceries, beer, wine and liquor, the board members said.
“We are trying to move as close to grocery stores and supermarkets as possible,” Brion said. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Both men bemoaned the rejection in recent years of legislation to allow more stores to open on Sundays and stay open longer, and to permit Pennsylvanians to have wine shipped directly to their homes. They said the Sunday sales changes alone would boost the agency’s already strong profits by $10 million to $15 million a year.
“It’s deja vu. Three years ago, we were here talking about most of those initiatives,” Marcus said. “As much as we make now, we could double that.”
The PLCB generates roughly $2 billion a year, most of which is plowed back into the operation for products, payroll, store leases and other overhead, Brion said. The rest is transferred to the state treasury in the form of taxes and profits, he said.
Brion, a West Chester lawyer appointed by Corbett, told the committee he supports the privatization push, but understands that he is paid to run the PLCB system as long the law remains on the books.
“Philosophically, I don’t believe that government should be in a private business,” he told reporters after the hearing. “That doesn’t mean I don’t do my job as chairman to earn as much money as we possibly can for the citizens of the commonwealth and run very efficient stores.”
Marcus is a lawyer from Indiana, who was appointed by Democratic former Gov. Ed Rendell in 2007. Both Brion and Marcus are Republicans. The other seat on the board is currently vacant.
Marcus declined to take a public stand on privatization but said the issue has created problems for the thousands of agency employees.
“We have a morale issue, then you have people in this Legislature and in the governor’s office continually talking about getting rid of the jobs,” he told the committee.
Committee members appeared divided over the privatization issue.
Sen. Charles McIlhinney, who has said he is sponsoring a bill to keep the state stores open while allowing beer retailers to buy special licenses to sell wine and liquor, said the growing number of supermarkets selling beer shows the market is working properly.
“The private sector is finding a way” to sell beer, the Bucks County Republican said. The system “is evolving and it’s a successful system.”
But Sen. Jake Corman, the committee chairman, questioned the strategy of moving liquor stores closer to beer-selling supermarkets if it results in driving another beer seller out of business.
While it makes sense from the standpoint of consumer convenience, “you’re also using the power of government to run the little guy out of business,” said Corman, R-Centre.