'To-go' liquor proposal might get another shot

A key House lawmaker on state liquor policy is “cautiously optimistic” that this could be the year consumers could purchase liquor “to-go” at stores outside the state-controlled system.

It's been a goal of some governors and lawmakers going back to at least the early 1980s, but for decades proponents have come up short.

“We made some great strides forward the past few years, so I'm hoping the momentum is there to keep going,” said Rep. Adam Harris, R-Juniata County, the chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee.

Harris' committee is scheduled to take up two proposals Monday to allow private retailers to sell hard liquor. The vote is an early step in the legislative process, and the proposals could get a serious look this spring as lawmakers look for options to balance the budget.

Harris' proposal could provide more options to consumers in rural areas underserved by the state-controlled system.

“Largely, I see this plan as allowing us to fill voids in rural counties where customers don't have easy access to a state store location,” Harris said.

The plan would establish a one-stop shop to buy alcohol by allowing potentially thousands of retail outlets — including retail beer distributors, restaurant liquor licensees and smaller, eating place licensees — to purchase a “franchise” permit to sell wine and hard liquor.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board would issue one franchise license per 6,000 residents within a county, with a minimum of 15 per county. The state-run retail outlets would remain open, and the proposal places some limitations on franchise shop locations to keep them from directly competing with state stores.

For instance, franchise shops would be prevented from opening in the same shopping plaza as a state store or another franchise shop, and in an “urbanized area” — as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau — the franchise shops must be at least a half-mile from the nearest state store or franchise shop. In rural areas, the buffer is two miles.

In recent years, state stores have positioned themselves closer to supermarkets and retail beer distributors, part of an effort by the PLCB to increase consumer convenience.

Harris said his plan is a starting point for discussions. Beside the benefits for underserved consumers, Harris said it could help balance the cash-strapped state's budget through initial fees for the franchise licenses. The PLCB would charge a fee for a franchise permit, starting at $100,000 for a retail outlet between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet of space up to $500,000 for an outlet larger than 75,000 square feet. An annual renewal fee would be based on sales.

The franchise stores wouldn't have to carry the same number of products as state stores. Depending on the size of the county, the stores would have to carry at least 100 stock keeping units (SKUs) and 200 SKUs of liquor and wine products. State-run stores carry 5,000 or more SKUs of wine and liquor in larger stores and more than 1,000 in smaller stores, according to the PLCB.

The committee is scheduled to vote on a separate measure to create a hard liquor “to-go” permit for hotel and restaurant liquor licensees, which includes restaurants and some supermarkets. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant, would charge a fee of $2,000 for the permit to sell up to 3 liters of liquor for off-premise consumption.

His bill mirrors a similar proposal approved last year that allowed restaurant licensees to sell wine to-go.

Off-premise hard liquor sales are mostly confined to the state-controlled retail outlets, except for some Pennsylvania distilleries that are permitted to sell bottles of their own product.