By Jared Sichel | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — As one attempt to privatize the state liquor store system seemed to hit a wall in the state House last week, an alternative plan to break up the state’s monopoly on the sale of wine and spirits was introduced in the Senate.
State Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, put forth a bill Tuesday that would allow restaurants, taverns and places licensed to sell wine and spirits in small quantities also to sell those products by the bottle, which would force the state’s 620 liquor stores to compete with private businesses.
Senate Bill 1554 would allow about 22,000 stores to purchase a new $10,000 license annually from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
Under current law, 620 state-owned retailers can sell wine and spirits by the bottle.
The important difference is that McIlhinney’s plan would allow the PLCB to continue to operate on the retail level, while House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, is pushing a more highly publicized plan to dismantle the state-owned liquor stores entirely and replace them with about 1,600 privately licensed stores.
McIlhinney proposed his measure, in part, because he said the Turzai amendment would give out-of-state and “big box” stores too much control over the wine and liquor market.
“Rep. Turzai’s bill takes millionaires and turns them into billionaires,” McIlhinney said. “My bill would extend the ability of our current liquor licensees to allow them to sell it by the bottle.”
In another contrast to Turzai’s House Bill 11, the McIlhinney plan would bar stores not licensed to sell beer and liquor from entering the wine and liquor market.
House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said Turzai hopes to bring HB 11 to a vote before summer recess, but it may have to wait until the fall.
“We are going to try,” said Miskin. “The budget may take it over.”
Another planned vote on Monday was cancelled by the House GOP.
Turzai’s bill faces strong opposition from the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union that represents many of the nearly 5,000 workers for the state’s liquor stores.
Last week, unions statewide descended on the Capitol to protest Turzai’s plan.
UFCW Local 1776 President Wendell Young said he doesn’t support McIlhinney’s proposal, but he credits McIlhinney for focusing not on privatizing but rather on modernizing state-owned liquor stores.
“McIlhinney’s bill will bring attention back to the modernization discussion,” Young said. “What he is really striving for is (to make the liquor stores) more convenient and more customer friendly.”
Privatization of state liquor stores enjoys broad public support. A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in September showed that 62 percent of Pennsylvanians support privatization of state-owned liquor stores.
The Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, which opposes the Turzai amendment, would likely support McIlhinney’s plan in its current form.
Mark Tanczos, president of the association, which represents retail and wholesale beer distributors statewide, wants beer distributors to sell beer individually and by the six-pack, which McIlhinney’s plan would allow.
“That’s exactly what our customers are asking us for,” Tanczos said. “They want to be able to buy beer in smaller quantities.”