Liquor reform takes a big step, but when's next step?

HARRISBURG – Republicans say they aren’t done dismantling the state’s liquor monopoly. A new law that loosens the state’s grip on liquor sales, however, may take some fizz out of their fight.

The law allows grocery stores with licenses to sell beer to also sell wine. Now, wine enthusiasts may order bottles directly from out-of-state wineries. The state Liquor Control Board can keep more stores open on Sundays.

But the law keeps the state-run stores in place, and it does nothing to remove state control of the wholesale distribution of liquor.

The conversation about liquor reform, in other words, is not done.

“This is a first step,” said Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-Northumberland County. “This isn’t privatization.”

It’s a theme that conservatives repeated over and over last week.

“This historic legislation is a tremendous leap toward bringing Pennsylvania into the 21st century,” said Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, the prime sponsor of the legislation. “I am confident this law is the first incremental step into a future for which Pennsylvanians have waited far too long.”

The Commonwealth Foundation – a free-market, small-government think tank – on Thursday released a list of reasons that the latest liquor law rewrite shouldn’t be the final word.

“Wine in select grocery stores is not exactly groundbreaking,” wrote Elizabeth Steele, a Commonwealth Foundation policy analyst.

“Is there more convenience? Sure. But it doesn’t take much to improve on the incredibly inconvenient and corrupt Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board,” she wrote.

Among Stelle’s observations: The law allows wine sales only in grocery stores with cafes that allow them to sell beer. That’s just a fraction of grocery stores in the state.

Similarly, while the bill retires a ban on beer sales by businesses that also sell gas, only those that sell prepared food will qualify for beer licenses. And their customers will need to buy gas from one cash register, then pay for their beer at another.

Speaking before a bill-signing ceremony on Wednesday, state Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland County, pointed to the hysterical comments by union leader Wendell Young as evidence that the legislation could lead to the demise of the liquor monopoly.