Liquor Privatization Plan Headed for Final Vote in House

Mar 21, 2013

A state House plan to privatize Pennsylvania’s wine and liquor system is on its way toward a final vote in the full chamber.

What was expected to be a lengthy floor debate in the House was cut short after Democrats, uniformly against liquor privatization, withdrew more than 100 proposed amendments after one of their bigger proposed changes failed a vote.

“I’m a little surprised that as many amendments were withdrawn, but it made this process a little smoother in terms of second consideration, anyways,” said House Speaker Sam Smith after returning from the floor.

The bill is now scheduled for a third and final vote Thursday afternoon, provided it clears the House Appropriations Committee in the morning.

Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster) said the bill’s final passage isn’t a sure thing, given what he saw from House Majority Leader during Wednesday’s floor debate.

“Mike Turzai was still running up and down the aisles today, trying to coerce people into voting for it,” Sturla said. “So you don’t do that to your members if you have the votes.”

House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin waved off Sturla’s comments that Turzai was unusually energetic.

“I don’t whether he was running up and down aisles,” Miskin said, “but he’s rarely in his seat just sitting there calmly.”

There’s nothing calm about what happens next, even if privatization does pass the House on Thursday.

Its next stop is the state Senate, where top Republicans have been outspoken about being more inclined to keep the state stores around and just bring them up to date a bit more with so-called modernization reforms – allowing for things like extended store hours and more control over product prices.

House Republicans said they’re confident they have the votes to send the measure to the Senate.

The bill is a scaled-back version of Governor Corbett’s privatization plan. It makes additional concessions to beer distributors by giving them first crack at wine and liquor retail licenses and and allows wine to be sold in grocery stores.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 union, which represents most of the state’s roughly 3,500 wine and spirits store workers, said this latest plan will effectively shutter state stores even earlier than Corbett’s office had proposed. Members, donning yellow t-shirts, have been swarming the Capitol in recent weeks to lobby lawmakers to vote against the plan.

Several Republican-offered amendments to the bill were adopted on the floor Wednesday, including one that would ban customers in grocery stores from purchasing wine in self-checkout lanes and another to ensure even distribution of wine and spirits retail licensees throughout each county based on population.

House Democrats suggest the latest round of tweaks to the privatization plan will net hundreds of million dollars less for the state than Republicans originally proposed.

Democrats’ major amendment would have replaced the liquor privatization bill’s language with modernization reforms that would keep state stores in place. Among the Republicans who rose to object to it was Rep. Kate Harper of Montgomery County.

“The ship of the state stores has sailed," Harper said. "Done, gone, finished. Ask anybody back home.”

Not that she thinks the bill is not perfect, she quipped on the House floor.

“That’s why the Senate exists,” Harper said. “Tell ‘em I said so – maybe I’ll get some of my bills through the Senate by giving them a little plug there.”