Pennsylvania liquor bill not a certainty
Until it didn’t.
After years of fights in the Capitol between governmental, union, nonprofit and private groups, many believed the House passage of a GOP-favored vote to privatize the liquor industry was finally ready to sail through the full Legislature.
A confusing piece of legislation, much of the House debate came across as partisan and rushed. There were questions like: What would happen to the 5,000 UFCW state store employees? The revenue the booze business brings into the state? Would an increase in liquor sales put “booze on every block” as some politicians fear? Much of that was overlooked as the bill passed largely along party lines and went to the Senate.
Now, it seems as though an even newer bill will be written and introduced in the Senate, making the Big Change to the PLCB anything but a certainty this year.
That new bill is being written by state Sen. Charles McIlhinney (R-Bucks). As the chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, he’s a key vote on the liquor issue, and many Republicans in favor of privatization believed he’d be a holdout vote. His plan, he said, would be ready in two weeks and less confusing than the current House-approved plan lawmakers are wrestling with. Unlike the current plan, he says, his would give current all license-holders, like bars, restaurants, grocery stores with a restaurant license and beer distributors, the option to expand on the type of liquor they can sell.
McIlhinney’s bill would require a new push, including debates and votes, from the Senate and House. It’s unclear whether Republicans would be able to get that done before the Legislature retreats for its summer recess.
And with any form of privatization, McIlhinney is unlikely to get the 23 Senate Democrats on board with his idea. Democrats have been opposed to the bill since the beginning, being as it would eliminate 5,000 union jobs and obliterate a large source of income from the state government. Like many ideas pushed by Republicans, both in Pennsylvania and nationally, part of the motivation behind liquor privatization seems to be to bleed the government of resources so it can, so to speak, drown in a bathtub.
All polling on this issue for the past 11 years has shown the public ready and willing to privatize the system. That is, until a recent Franklin and Marshall poll released a poll in April showing—for the first time ever—a majority of Pennsylvanians no longer support privatizing the liquor industry.
“When times are tough, it’s hard for anyone to hate on somebody else that’s trying to earn a living,” says State Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia). “And I think what people realized is that part of this bill is meant to be a union buster … I think people saw there was malice in this bill.”
In the past, Sims has told PW and others that if we were writing the Pennsylvania constitution today, of course we wouldn’t have the state controlling the alcohol business. But here we are—and, he says, the system works.
On the Senate side, members of the Philadelphia delegation agree. “No new people will get hired,” says State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia). “And at the same time, the 5,000 [UFCW workers], the tax-paying citizens getting benefits, they’re done. They’re out. What happens to them is, they lose a job.”
Oddly, Susquehanna Polling and Research, the Republican-affiliated firm which embarrassed itself with ridiculous Pennsylvania polling numbers during the 2012 election, often showing Mitt Romney leading Barack Obama, released their own poll this week. And—surprise!—they found a majority (55 percent) want to privatize the system.
The Pennsylvania Democratic party released a damning and hilarious statement about the poll.
“Susquehanna Polling & Research is one of America’s worst polling firms and any poll from them should not just be viewed skeptically but laughed off entirely. Their work in 2012 made them a laughingstock and any news outlet that print the results of these polls are doing a great disservice to their audience,” they said.
Rather than privatization, Democrats have put their focus on what they call “modernization,” which would allow residents to get liquor shipped directly to their homes, among other things. As state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) noted at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference this year, though, Republicans should view any call for modernization as one for the status quo.
Other than the jobs, legislators in less well-to-do parts of the state worry expanding and privatizing liquor sales could have detrimental effects on their communities.
“I’m very fearful of booze on every corner in every community,” adds Hughes. “That would be, for a city that is distressed as Philadelphia is, that has some of the highest levels of poverty of any city in the nation, to have more alcohol available in these distressed communities, that is not what people are looking for.”
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