It’s not time to uncork the champagne just yet.
Last Thursday night, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved a bill that would allow the private sector to sell wine and spirits in the commonwealth, the first time such a measure has made it through either house of the Legislature since Prohibition was consigned to history’s dustbin 80 years ago. Under the House bill, the 600 state stores that dot the landscape between Philadelphia and our neck of the woods would be phased out, beer and wine would be sold in grocery stores and beer distributors would have the first crack at over 1,000 licenses to sell wine and spirits.
However, anyone champing at the bit to buy some wine for dinner at the same time and in the same location where they purchase a steak or salad fixings – imagine that convenience! – had best hold their horses. Put through the House at a hare’s pace, things appear likely to slow to tortoise levels in the state Senate. Dominic Pileggi, the Senate’s majority leader, told the Associated Press that hearings on the House bill would happen sometime in the next month or two. It might not even reach the floor of the Senate, if indeed it does at all, until December.
And perhaps the greater question is not so much when but what form a Senate bill would take. State Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, chairman of the committee that oversees the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, has said that he would have voted against the House bill and that he supports “relaxing” the sale of wine and spirits in the state by allowing beer retailers to sell wine and spirits, opening state stores on Sunday and making it easier for customers to order wine over the Internet. He believes the House measure goes too far and that we can’t “blow up” the current system overnight.
In other words, McIlhinney is advocating something akin to “perestroika” for state stores, pushing for reforms to an ossified, anachronistic system just as Mikhail Gorbachev did for the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. And while we’re certainly not comparing having to drive to a separate store to buy a bottle of Mogen David or Manischewitz to totalitarian communism, with its oppression, censorship and gulags, McIlhinney and his compatriots are advocating half-measures when what is needed is a wholesale change so that Pennsylvania can, at long last, become like Ohio, West Virginia, New York, Maryland and, well, just about every other state in the union that allows adults to buy alcohol without having to fly through the hoops and leap over the hurdles that we do here.
House approval was mostly along party lines, with all but four Republicans supporting the bill and Democrats forming a solid bloc in opposition. State Rep. Brandon Neuman remarked that “It’s not easy to change something we’ve been doing for 80 years,” while Rep. Pete Daley decried it in full populist throat, saying it would amount to “walloping workers while catering to wealthy corporate interests.” But it should be noted that businesses would get tax credits if they hire employees thrown out of work if state stores are done away with and civil service preferences would remain in place for those laid off, which is a better deal than many downsized workers receive.
So while the House’s support for privatizing liquor sales in Pennsylvania isn’t exactly taking a sledgehammer to the Berlin Wall, it does represent a measure of progress. House members who voted for the bill deserve kudos, as does Gov. Tom Corbett, who has forcefully advocated privatization, just like his Republican predecessors Richard Thornburgh and Tom Ridge. But, unlike them, Corbett was able to see a bill make it through at least one house of the Legislature on his watch.