Privatization supporters could use a stiff drink

May 6, 2013

Supporters of efforts to break up Pennsylvania’s musty and long-outdated monopoly on wholesale and retail sales of liquor and wine could probably use a stiff drink right about now.

Despite being near the top of Gov. Tom Corbett’s legislative agenda and the state House of Representatives approving a privatization measure in March, a hearing last week before the state Senate’s Law and Justice Committee on getting Pennsylvania out of the alcohol business was notable for its frostiness.

First, the committee’s chairman, Charles McIlhinney, a Bucks County Republican, pointedly questioned whether a $1 billion windfall would result from selling off wine and liquor store licenses to private vendors, despite Corbett’s assertion that it would. Then, the cast chosen to testify before the committee seemed heavily weighted to those wishing to maintain the status quo, which hasn’t changed much since Prohibition was lifted 80 years ago.

With the focus of the hearing on how privatization would affect law enforcement and public health, David Bender, a representative of a Lancaster-based anti-addiction group wondered why lawmakers were worrying about how alcohol was being bought and sold when there were a host of other urgent items on the state’s to-do list. Bender also said he expected there to be an increase in drinking if alcohol is made more readily available, though he admitted it would probably not be large, and that state coffers would lose millions of dollars if privatization happens.

McIlhinney, who has supported “modernizing” the state’s sales of wine and liquor rather than leaping into privatization, said that “If this is about a money maker, I don’t think that’s really where we should be going with it.”

Against this backdrop, the likelihood of a bill coming out of the Senate, being reconciled with the House bill and making it to Corbett for his signature by the end of the legislative session June 30 looks highly unlikely. That would be a blow to Corbett, since reports indicate that both the governor and his political brain trust believe signing privatization into law would be a signature accomplishment to tout when he comes before voters again in 18 months.

Whether privatized liquor sales would be good for Corbett or bad for Corbett remains to be seen. But we feel it would unequivocally be good for the commonwealth’s residents and taxpayers. It has broad public support, with Republicans and independents supporting it in a January poll by margins in excess of two-to-one. Democrats weren’t quite as committed to privatization, likely fearing the loss of well-compensated union jobs, but nonetheless 52 percent of them also supported it. As it is, the only other state to maintain a similar stranglehold on wine and liquor sales is Utah. When Pennsylvanians visit surrounding states like Ohio and West Virginia, they are able to purchase alcohol in grocery stores as they are buying the rest of their comestibles. And though proponents of “modernization” efforts – which to us possess the same desperate whiff as Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts at perestroika in the years before the Soviet Union crumbled – have been trying to push the notion of consumer convenience, and placing state-run wine and liquor stores closer to grocery stores, this seems like a weak half-measure.

Watered-down brew, if you will.

Unless there is an unexpected swing in sentiment, the privatization of liquor and wine sales could well meet its Waterloo in the state Senate. But even if that proves to be the case, this is a battle that’s almost certain to be fought again.



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