Area legislators partisan on privatization

March 22, 2013

This was on the House. The next round is on the Senate.

State representatives approved legislation to privatize the state liquor system Thursday by a 105-90 vote, which fell almost entirely along party lines. All but five Republicans voted for and all Democrats against House Bill 790, resulting in a victory for the majority Republican caucus and GOP Gov. Tom Corbett.

The bill now goes to the Senate, which probably will amend it. The legislation calls for a phaseout of about 600 state-operated liquor stores, a system that has existed for 80 years.

Representatives from Washington and Greene counties voted along with all or the vast majority of their party brethren. Republicans Rick Saccone of Elizabeth and John Maher of Upper St. Clair were for the bill; Democrats Brandon Neuman of North Strabane Township, Peter Daley of California, Jesse White of Cecil Township and Pam Snyder of Waynesburg were against.

Generally, supporters say millions in revenue would result from selling wine and spirit licenses to private businesses, with that money going into a state fund. They also contend that making wine and spirits available at existing beer distributors and grocery stores would increase customer convenience and create jobs. Beer distributors would get priority in purchasing these licenses.

Opponents say thousands of state store employees would be out of jobs, the new system would be costlier and generate less revenue than supporters say, and that increased availability of alcohol could lead to social problems.

Saccone expressed relief over the passage, saying in a prepared statement Friday: “Finally, after 40 long years of attempts by legislators and governors, we passed a bill that removes state government from the business of selling liquor. Citizens have been asking me to work to accomplish this, and I am pleased to say that we delivered.”

On the opposite side, Democrat Daley was irked.

“House Bill 790 is the perfect prescritpion for job and revenue losses and the perfect companion for GOP economic policies that are killing jobs and fertilizing unemployment rates,” he said in a prepared statement Friday. “In the rush to privatize, we’re walloping workers while catering to wealthy corporate interests.”

Daley said if the current version of the bill is passed, about 4,000 state employees would lose jobs along with those at neighborhood beer distributors.

On Friday, White called this “an ill-conceived bill.”

“Some people have said we should be running the state like a business,” he said. “If that’s the case, I don’t know what businessman would want to take a profitable entity (like the state store system) and do this.”

He said he heard some GOP members of the House were leaning “hard” on some Republicans to vote for the bill.

“A lot of colleagues on the Republican side did not like this bill, but were pressured into voting for it. On an issue this big, that’s not the way to do business.”

Snyder believes the bill was rushed through the House without regard to possible aftereffects.

“I want to make things simpler and more convenient for customers while keeping prices low and selections extensive,” she said in a statement. “Just as importantly, I want to protect the jobs and the recurring revenues.

“However, House Bill 790 would force thousands of middle-class Pennsylvanians out of work while retail giants in urban areas would reap huge profits. The bill would result in a net loss of about $600 million in state revenues over the first five years while consumers likely would pay higher prices.”

En route to a fish fry Friday, Neuman said this was a difficult decision for representatives from both parties. “It’s not easy to change something we’ve been doing for 80 years.”

He is hoping the state Senate changes some things in the bill.

“There are so many uncertainties in the way this was drafted,” Neuman said. “There are a lot of uncertainties with revenue projections for the state.

“A lot of people don’t see this as a final product. For me, this bill wasn’t even ready to be sent (to the Senate). Hopefully, the Senate makes changes and the bill is sent back to the House, after all is said and done, we have a good package for Pennsylvania.”

Maher could not be reached for comment.

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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