[Editor's Note: Eric Boehm is a reporter for PAIndependent.com. He can be reached at 717-920-1819.]
HARRISBURG — The days of having to travel one place to buy beer and another to purchase wine may be coming to an end, but proposed legislation could be paving the way for the privatization of state-owned liquor stores.
A bill expected to be introduced in the state House of Representatives in the coming weeks would allow Pennsylvania’s 1,200 beer distributors to sell wine and hard liquor through a special permitting program. The cost of the permits has not been determined. The details of the legislation are still pending.
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, or PLCB, would remain intact and continue to operate the 625 state-owned liquor stores. The lawmakers behind the proposal are aiming to increase customer convenience, particularly in the more rural parts of the state. Some counties in Pennsylvania have only one state-owned liquor store.
The PLCB declined to comment on the proposal since the bill has not been officially introduced.
The bill runs parallel to a renewed push to privatize state-owned liquor stores. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and Gov. Tom Corbett have both called for the privatization of the liquor store system, and the governor formed a commission to study the issue. No privatization bill has been introduced, but Republicans plan to address the issue in the fall.
At the same time, the PLCB is asking the General Assembly to consider several changes to how the state stores operate, such as allowing for more flexible pricing, longer hours and exempting liquor store employees from the state civil service tests.
State Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee, said he planned to hold hearings on the new bill after it is introduced, though nothing is expected to happen until after the June 30 state budget deadline.
“I think people would like to be able to buy everything in one spot,” Taylor said. “But this is also not the type of issue that is on the front burner for most people.”
State Rep. Thomas Quigley, R-Montgomery, said the Legislature should take a broader approach to reforming the state's alcohol sales network, which was established at the end of the prohibition era and has gone relatively unchanged since.
“I would rather take a holistic look at the way alcohol is sold in Pennsylvania and see if we have to incorporate changes across the board,” Quigley said.
Pennsylvania and Utah are the only states that maintain complete control over liquor sales. Pennsylvania generates revenue from these sales. During the 2009-10 fiscal year, the PLCB transferred $105 million in profits to the state treasury along with $383 million in taxes.
Democrats on the House Liquor Control Committee did not return calls seeking comment.
David Shipula, president of the Pennsylvania Malt Beverage Distributors Association, which represents the state's privately owned beer distributors, said allowing the sale of liquor would help beer distributors make up for some of their losses in recent years, as restaurants and supermarkets have expanded their beer sales.
“We would be interested in anything that allows us to expand what we can sell,” said Shipula, who also owns a beer distributor in Luzerne County. “If I had more items to sell, of course that would help my bottom line.”
Wine and liquor can only be purchased at the state stores, though restaurants are allowed to sell wine and re-cork a bottle for carry-out at the end of a meal. Beer can be purchased by the case or the keg at beer distributors, but six-packs are only available at bars or restaurants.
Starting in 2008, some supermarkets were permitted to sell beer by licensing a portion of the store as a restaurant.
But Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, the union representing state liquor store workers, said allowing liquor sales at beer distributors was a one-sided proposal.
“They want to open the door to beer distributors selling liquor, but they don’t want to turn around and let the liquor stores sell beer,” Young said. “It’s kind of a silly prospect when you think about it.”
Young said the beer distributors would be unable to provide the same selection as the state liquor stores, and allowing them to sell liquor would cost the state some of annual revenues from the sale of alcohol.
The public had mixed reactions to allowing liquor to be sold in the state’s beer distributors.
Steve Grubbs, of Harrisburg, said lawmakers who tried to change the state liquor store system would “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
“This is a money-maker for the commonwealth, and it’s best just to be left alone,” Grubbs said. “Besides, most people who drink wine don’t drink beer, and people who drink beer usually don’t drink wine.”
Rick Smith, of Carlisle, said the state should keep the beer and liquor stores separate to prevent alcohol abuse.
“Alcohol is an adult item,” Smith said. “It shouldn’t be an impulse item; it shouldn’t be on the shelf next to the Tic-Tacs.”
But Dexter Loving, of New Cumberland, said selling both types of alcohol in the same location was sensible.
“I probably would speak for everyone, it's convenience,” Loving said. “Having it all in one place would be beneficial to all.”
Todd Hostetter, of Lemoyne, said he did not believe having liquor in the beer distributors would increase drunken driving or other problems.
“You have to be 21 to drink either one, so it would only make sense to me to sell everything at one place,” Hostetter said.