HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Republican state senators won a key vote early Saturday morning on a provision to allow private store sales of wine and liquor in Pennsylvania after GOP leaders spent hours through the night seeking enough support to break the state's Depression-era control of the goods.
Republican senators agreed to suspend a rule that otherwise stops debate at 11 p.m. after they were told that Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, had finally secured the 26 votes necessary to pass an amendment to an underlying bill that lacked the support. Pileggi had worked for days to win over skeptical Republicans before Sunday night, when the state's fiscal year ends and lawmakers plan to leave Harrisburg until fall.
The 27-23 vote after 1:20 a.m. fell along party lines. The bill still needs full House and Senate approval to reach Gov. Tom Corbett's desk.
Republican senators were under pressure from Corbett, a Republican, to produce a bill to privatize liquor and wine sales, one of his top legislative priorities. But they were also driven by a desire to encourage House passage of a proposal to generate billions of dollars for transportation projects by increasing a wholesale tax on motor fuels.
The two issues are indirectly linked: Senate Republicans have made a transportation bill a top priority while House GOP leaders helped lead efforts to privatize the state-controlled liquor and wine system. The House passed a wine and liquor privatization bill in March that had little support in the Senate.
Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, said Friday night he and a couple other holdout Republican senators would grudgingly support Pileggi's amendment because it could compel the House to approve a transportation funding plan. The House of Representatives adjourned Friday without debating transportation funding legislation as Republican leaders sought to cobble together at least half of the caucus to join Democrats in supporting a bill.
By the time the Senate's debate began after midnight, the amendment had just been made public.
Pileggi called it "historic."
"We are on the verge of making important changes to our system that consumers have wanted for decades," Pileggi said.
The balance Pileggi had to strike included satisfying some senators that the state would get out of the alcohol business, but ensure that rural communities would continue to have access to wine and liquor and that some senators' hometown beer retailers and brewers would not be crushed by bigger, better capitalized chain businesses.
The state would continue to own the lucrative wholesale business of shipping wine and liquor, and rural areas would receive some assurance that their state-controlled wine and liquor stores will not close down without liquor control regulators ensuring that a viable private sector alternative exists.
The bill would allow the state's 1,100 retail beer distributors to buy permits to sell wine and liquor. Certain gas station food markets and grocery stores with beer licenses would be able to buy a permit to sell wine, but they would have to sell the alcoholic beverages from a separate section of the store and not from their aisles.
The bill is complicated and carries protections for beer distributors that buy a permit to sell wine or liquor. One such provision imposes a three-fourths-of-a-mile buffer preventing competitors inside of it from applying for an exemption from a restaurant-style seating requirement that they currently must obey.
"It really is quite frankly confusing and poorly constructed," said Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny.
Democrats also criticized the late-night unveiling of the bill.
"Welcome to the new reform Senate," said Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester.
Republicans remained quiet while Democrats warned about the public health consequences, the loss of unionized state-store clerk jobs, the loss of revenue that helps pay for some core state programs and the damage to beer distributors and restaurants that cannot compete with new competitors.
Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said struggling communities would be further engulfed by addiction.
"Every one of these distressed communities is asking for fewer places where their ... constituents can purchase alcohol and all we do in this legislation is go against the will and the need of those folks," Hughes said. "We're breathing death into these neighborhoods with the proliferation of booze."
The bill also carried provisions to liberalize beer sales.
Bars and restaurants with beer licenses would be able to sell up to three six-packs, instead of just two currently. Meanwhile, beer distributors could sell six-packs, instead of just kegs and 24-pack cases.
It also would allow an annual tax credit for up to $200,000 in capital spending by in-state breweries and allow them to sell at farmers' markets.