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A house divided over booze

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July 29, 2011


Harrisburg, PA: State House Majority Leader Mike Turzai's latest piece of legislation, HB 11, won't hit the house floor until September, but it's already causing a buzz around Harrisburg.

Turzai has long been an advocate of the privatization of Pennsylvania's state-run liquor business. The commonwealth has had a monopoly on wholesale and retail liquor and wine sales since Prohibition ended in 1933. Turzai's bill moves to shut down Pennsylvania's 609 "state stores," as the commonwealth's liquor and wine stores have come to be known, and distribute 1,250 new retail licenses in a public auction. He estimates the sale would generate $1 billion to $2 billion in upfront revenue. Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord estimates the auction would earn the commonwealth around $1.7 billion, while union leader Wendell Young, chairman of the United Food and Commercial Workers PA Wine and Spirit Council, puts the figure between $600 million and $700 million.[1][2][3][4]

Faced with a deficit of nearly $4 billion, Pennsylvania could certainly use the cash, but even some Republicans are wary of Turzai's proposal. Representative Scott Petri expressed concern for the impact the law would have on existing restaurants and beer distributors, as well as the 5,000 Pennsylvanians who are currently employed by the Liquor Control Board. John Taylor, chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee, is careful to say he doesn't think the bill is a "slam-dunk," and expressed his interest in "taking a look at all the options."[5] In the other chamber, Senate President Joe Scarnati believes the legislature should allow the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to act more like a private business before selling the liquor system, suggesting the board should be permitted to set prices by region and experiment with market demands.[6]

Turzai is confident in his bill, noting that government "is supposed to serve the people, not serve them alcohol."[7] Governor Tom Corbett has expressed his support for the bill, and appears unperturbed by the failed efforts of his two most recent GOP predecessors who both tried (without success) to sell the state stores while they were in office. He has said he "looks forward to working with Representative Turzai and other members of the House and Senate to privatize the liquor system."[2]

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