What You Should Know About This Week’s Potential Liquor Vote
Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai has taken it upon himself to make the privatization of the state’s liquor industry his pet project. And on Friday, he promised a vote on a bill which would do just that. The vote is set to come up this week—possibly today. But like the history of this issue, from prohibition’s demise to the present, it’s complicated and messy. And it looks like things will get worse before they get better.
Last we checked in, the problem was putting together a General Assembly coalition of forces that’d get enough votes together to outnumber the clot of pro-union Democrats and pro-’family’ Republicans, both of whom are against privatization of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board for completely different reasons.
The most recent plan they’re trying to get past these groups would issue 1,600 wine and spirits licenses, the first 1,060 of which would be offered to beer distributors to make for liver-killing mega stores throughout the state. Beer distributors would also be allowed to sell 6-packs. Within five years, state liquor stores would be winded down, except in remote parts of the state. In 10 years, supermarkets would be allowed to jump into the mix. Turzai called the idea a “strong plan,” even if most aren’t entirely sure how much money would be reaped from the initial sell-off.
But there is a problem.
Last week, the United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 1776, which represents the more than 3,000 state store employees, ratified a new labor contract which runs through mid-2015. And the union’s leader, Wendell Young IV, maintains that contract “makes any discussion of privatization moot for several years.”
Why? Because the contract contains a clause “requiring any entity taking over liquor or wine sales from the state to hire union workers and pay them contracted wages, insurance and pension benefits,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And, as the idea goes, the government may not want to pass that onto private business, should the situation come up. Additionally, the union’s raises total more than 6 percent over the same period.
Corbett, who recently told WPHT 1210’s Dom Giordano he supports full-privatization, denies the contract would have any bearing, should the law go into place. His spokesman recently noted private businesses, on the contrary, would not be forced to maintain the contractual obligations. “You can’t force a private employer to abide by that contract. If the Legislature passes a law privatizing the Liquor Control Board, that’s the idea of it: It gets the state out of it. Private sector workers are not state workers with generous wages, benefits and pensions,” his spokesman, Kevin Harley, told the Tribune-Review. But don’t expect the union to go down without a fight.
And that’s not all.
While the fear mongering of a liquor store on every corner rhetoric probably isn’t true, Pennsylvania’s alcohol-related health statistics will become especially relevant this week. Expect opponents and union representatives to cite the fact that the commonwealth’s alcohol-related mortality rate is the nation’s lowest. That’s according to the National Center for Health Statistics, who found Pennsylvania’s alcohol-related death rate over the past eight years at 3.7 per 100,000 people. By comparison, the worst in the country, Alaska, had 19.5 deaths per 100,000. According to Anthony Fabio and Dr. Lewis H. Kuller of the NCHS, “Many factors might contribute to the low rate of alcohol-related deaths in Pennsylvania, but one key factor is the state’s longstanding alcohol policy.”
They note in a recent Patriot News op/ed that Pennsylvania’s alcohol policies provide a “societal incentive to consume moderate amounts of alcohol by decreasing its easy accessibility.”
Additionally, the Community Preventive Services Task Force, a group appointed by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends against privatization in states which currently have government control. Currently, Pennsylvania and Utah are the only states in which the government controls both wholesale and retail sale of wine. And pro-privatization forces maintain the same argument they’ve had since this issue became a prevalent one (around the time Corbett’s election seemed certain): It’s not the government’s role to dictate people’s alcohol consumption, come death rates or union jobs.
This week’s potential vote is being touted as historic. Anti-PLCB forces have tried and failed several times over the years to get similar bills passed. They’ve always failed to make it out of committee, let alone come up for a vote.