By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — State Sen. Charles McIlhinney, R-Bucks, says he really wants to simplify how Pennsylvanians buy alcohol.
He said Tuesday he will introduce legislation to do just that. What he won’t do is move along a House-passed liquor privatization bill.
McIlhinney, chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee and therefore a key vote on any liquor issue, said his plan will not be ready for another two weeks, but that it will focus on giving existing license-holders — bars, restaurants, beer distributors and a small but growing number of grocery stores — the ability to expand what types of liquor they can sell under state law.
Currently, bars and restaurants are limited to selling six-packs of beer for off-site consumption. Some grocery stores that have obtained restaurant licenses can do the same, but are not allowed to sell wine. Beer distributors can sell kegs and cases of beer, but not six-packs, wine or liquor.
Wine and hard alcohol is available only through the approximately 600 state-owned-and-operated liquor stores.
It’s a confusing system and McIlhinney said any changes should focus squarely on making it easier for consumers to purchase what they want, where they want. Under his still-being-crafted plan, all retailers would be able to upgrade their license — if they choose and for a yet-unknown fee – to sell all sizes and types of beer, wine and liquor.
“I don’t think we need to add licenses,” he said. “I think we need to adjust the existing license structure to accommodate these different packages.”
The senator said he does not want to actively shut the state liquor stores immediately, but would prefer to see them fade away as the private sector expands sales.
Those are both key differences with the House plan.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said Tuesday he would wait to see McIlhinney’s official proposal before commenting specifically, but added that anything passed by the state Senate would have to be “substantially similar” to the bill passed by the state House in March.
But McIlhinney said the liquor privatization bill passed by the state House, which expanded the number of licenses and made some changes to who can sell what, was nearly as confusing as the current system.
“I will almost guarantee that my bill will be much simpler than (the House bill) was,” he said. “We’re addressing the same issues, we’re just going about it in a more methodical way than they did.”
Democrats oppose to the liquor privatization measure in the state House and appear ready to do the same in the state Senate. They are chiefly concerned about the loss of union jobs in the state liquor stores and social costs created by easing the state’s restrictions on alcohol purchases.
Tuesday’s Senate hearing on privatization got heated several times, but the nastiest moment came when state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny, an unabashed critic of privatization who is not shy about letting his feelings be known, unleashed a flurry of personal attacks at Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley and other members of the Corbett administration who testified near the end of the proceedings.
Ferlo called the idea of private liquor sales “outrageous and inappropriate.”
“The notion we would kill family-sustaining jobs so someone can work for minimum wage at a damn Sheetz is outrageous,” Ferlo said, referring the chain of large convenience stores in western Pennsylvania that is eager to start selling alcohol.
His comment drew cheers and applause from the yellow-clad union members who filled the hearing room in opposition to the privatization plan.
Cawley retorted that Ferlo was “impugning the character of excellent public servants.”
“This is a responsible proposal put forward by responsible people who aren’t playing to a crowd that is present in this room, but are working to honor the desires of the people of this commonwealth,” Cawley said.
Corbett has made liquor privatization a cornerstone of his 2013 budget agenda, but timing is starting to become more of an issue.
McIlhinney’s new liquor plan will not be public for another two weeks, at which point there will be only about 12 days remaining before the June 30 deadline to work out differences with the state House and governor’s office.
So far, Corbett has been mum about whether he would block the passage of an on-time state budget to give more time for lawmakers to hammer out a liquor bill. But both Turzai and McIlhinney said Tuesday they do not believe that would be necessary.
“The budget will be done on time,” Turzai promised.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.