New law seen as first step toward liquor privatization

Some legislators who voted for the new law that allows wine sales at places other than state liquor stores said they see it as a first step toward total liquor privatization in Pennsylvania.

Act 39 marks the first time the Legislature has changed the state’s Prohibition-era alcohol regulations, they said.

The law eventually will allow more alcohol to be sold in more places and for longer periods of time than before.

Local wineries, breweries and distilleries can seek permission to sell each other’s products. The state Liquor Control Board has started accepting applications to sell wine in grocery stores and in restaurants already licensed to sell beer.

Casinos can also apply to sell alcohol 24 hours a day, and more state-owned liquor stores will be open Sundays and holidays.

State Sen. John Gordner, R-27, Berwick, said at a recent legislative forum the new law marks a milestone.

“Governors (Dick) Thornburgh, (Tom) Ridge and (Tom) Corbett all tried and were unsuccessful at liquor privatization,” Gordner said. “Gov. (Tom) Wolf didn’t try to do it, but he signed the bill. We hadn’t had a change since Prohibition ended. Gov. (Gifford) Pichot, who was a teetotaler, tried to come up with this system to restrict alcohol going to folks. For 80-plus years, we’ve had this system.”

The theme of the new law, Gordner said, is convenience for the consumer.

“Now you can go into a lot of grocery stores and buy a bottle of wine,” he said. “Pretty soon, you will be able to go to some beer distributors and buy wine, and have one-stop shopping. I’ve been there (Harrisburg) 24 years, and this is the first real big, major step we have taken in regard to that particular issue.”

Gordner views the law as a first step, and said House Speaker Michael Turzai, R-28, Pittsburgh, is interested in going a couple of more steps.

“I think realistically, in this year, to do much more than we just did won’t happen. There are still some components of what we did that has to happen and shake out,” he said. “You used to be able to put a liquor license into safe keeping forever. Now, you can put a license into safe keeping for about two years, and if you want to keep it beyond that, it is going to cost you a lot of money. It’s putting a lot of licenses out there, so that folks like grocery stores and supermarkets that want to have the ability to sell wine are going to be able to do it, because those licenses will be available.”

State Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-124, Tamaqua, a vocal proponent of privatization, said he voted for the bill as a first step.

“But to me, it was like taking a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and watering it down,” he said. “This liquor bill that we passed was not what we wanted. I voted for it because I thought it was the first step toward full privatization. We don’t belong in the liquor business. We ought to get out of it, and let the private sector handle it because they can do it right.”

State Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-122, Lower Towamensing Township, said privatization is, more or less, already here anyway.

“They make the argument that if the state doesn’t run it, everybody underage is going to be buying alcohol, when they already have 82 percent of all alcohol sales in Pennsylvania made by the private sector, in bars, restaurants and beer distributors,” Heffley said. “I don’t think that argument holds water at all. It really comes down to protecting some of those jobs, and the State Store union is very strong.”

Heffley also likes the convenience.

“I’m glad I can go to the beer distributor and buy a six-pack, or mix and match,” he said. “I know our beer distributors are happy with that. I don’t know that the wine sales have taken off yet.”

State Sen. David Argall, R-29, Tamaqua, said there have been some “unintended consequences” of the new law.

“We’re a monopoly and we’re losing money. Think about that,” Argall said. “We’re just trying to free the market up and give consumers the freedom to buy when, where and how they like to buy. Why couldn’t you buy a six-pack if you wanted it? We kind of hardened the territories they have to sell within because there is a wholesaler who has the territory. I’ve had some small businesses come back to me and said this has caused some problems. When you change something, you want to make sure what you change doesn’t affect small businesses too negatively.”

Right to work

Knowles said the Legislature will be considering new right-to-work legislation in March.

“The Pennsylvania Open Workforce Initiative is a package of six bills that would make Pennsylvania a right-to-work state, Knowles said. “Basically, it is very simple. If you want to be a member of a union, pay union dues, you can. If you don’t want to be a member of a union and you don’t want to pay union dues, you can’t be forced to do it.”

In the last legislative session, Gordner said paycheck protection was approved. Employee unions in the state deduct from their members’ paychecks money used to help negotiate contracts, but also to pay for political purposes and political advocacy.

“We have crafted legislation if the PSEA (Pennsylvania State Education Association) is negotiating contracts or doing something to represent you, that money can be taken out,” Gordner said. “But any money used for political purposes — political campaigns or political advocacy — cannot be taken out.”