Legislation to loosen Pennsylvania liquor laws draws strong opposition from distributors, union

A bill aimed at giving retailers more flexibility in the sale of beer and wine went under the microscope by a Pennsylvania House panel, but the chairman of the committee said a recommendation is far from official.

Members of the Liquor Control Committee took testimony this week from several Pennsylvanians intricately involved in alcohol beverage sales across the state.

The testimony is linked to state Rep. Matthew Dowling’s consumer convenience permit legislation, filed as House Bill 1644, which in its current draft calls for giving more flexibility in how grocery and convenience store owners can sell beer and wine.

“I’m passionate about the bill we’re discussing,” said Dowling, R-Uniontown. “I really believe it takes steps to modernize what many have characterized as an archaic system of liquor laws.”

Throughout the 90 minute session, state Rep. Jeffrey Pyle, R-Ford City, emphasized that the committee was, and continues to be, in an information-gathering mode.

“I’m not rubber stamping this thing,” Pyle said. “I’ve been given no command that I have to move this bill.”

As proposed, HB1644 would give greater provisions to beer and wine licensees in the grocery and convenience store spaces, who are currently required under state law to purchase a restaurant license to sell the alcoholic beverages within their premises.

Dowling’s bill in its current iteration would give grocery and convenience store operators the ability to sell beer and wine at additional registers and permit individual sales of beer containing more than 192 ounces and wine of more than 3,000 milliliters.

Also encapsulated in HB1644 would be a provision to place beer and wine products anywhere in a store and the permissibility to hold educational or cooking classes within a store with alcoholic beverages in the mix of the event.

Most of the speakers within the industry at Tuesday’s hearing had concerns with at least some of the provisions outlined in Dowling’s bill.

Wendell Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, said broadening the scope of permissiveness for license holders would create challenges for the approximately 10,000 employees his union represents in Pennsylvania.

“This is a logistical nightmare for enforcement,” Young said. “This is an unfair situation for grocery store employees, especially late at night.”

Arun Patel, representing the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, said he believed the legislation would adversely impact businesses holding the state’s distributor, or D, liquor license.

“It basically puts the nail in the coffin,” Patel said. “This bill does have a direct impact on the (D) licensees,” Patel said. “We do it right. We’ve been doing it for so long. To keep changing the rules for us, it’s hard.”

Pennsylvania’s Act 39, which Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law in 2016, also was discussed throughout the hearing. Act 39 offered up a series of changes on licensing and permitting in relation to alcoholic beverages across the state.

“I want to be very, very clear,” Pyle said at the end of the hearing. “We are not reopening Act 39, period … end of sentence. We are not going to repeal Act 39. Please spread the word.”