Top Pa. Senator: Liquor Bill Lacks Support

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Top Republican state senators continued to seek enough support Tuesday to pass legislation one of their members is writing to liberalize wine, beer and liquor sales in Pennsylvania and give Gov. Tom Corbett the ability to claim victory on one of his top priorities.

However, legislation being written by Bucks County Sen. Charles McIlhinney would not necessarily get the state out of the alcohol business, as Corbett, a Republican, and a House Republican bill had sought.

McIlhinney's plan would not require the closure of state-controlled wine and liquor stores, nor would it require the divestiture of the state-controlled wholesaling operation.

Meanwhile, it would allow thousands of holders of existing beer licensees, including eateries, bars, hotels and distributors, to buy $8,000 permits to sell wine and liquor, shattering the state's control of the retail sale of the goods. McIlhinney also would allow beer licensees to sell beer in a wider variety of quantities.

"We do not have 26 votes for this proposal yet," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware. "We're optimistic we'll get there in the next few days."

Pileggi said there are issues he would like to see "refined," while other members of the Senate Republican majority would like some elements to be explained.

In a brief statement thanking McIlhinney, Corbett called it "a proposal to get Pennsylvania out of the wine and spirits business," but stopped short of saying whether he would sign it.

The Senate's 23 Democrats can be expected to oppose the proposal, leaving Senate Republican leaders little room for error in winning over the chamber's 27 Republicans if they are to meet Corbett's wish for finished legislation by July 1, when lawmakers expect to depart Harrisburg for the summer.

Even if Senate Republicans scrounge together enough votes to pass it, the bill will not make it to the House of Representatives until at least next week, leaving just a few days before July 1.

Democratic lawmakers support a plan to give the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board more freedom to set pricing and hours at its stores. On Tuesday, they criticized McIlhinney's proposal as damaging both to the state's finances and public safety while setting up a system that would allow large corporations to crowd out mom-and-pop businesses from the state's beer, wine or liquor industry.

Corbett had pressed for changes that would create a huge expansion in the number of alcohol licensees and allow people to buy beer or wine in the aisles of grocery stores, big-box stores, supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores.

The House scrapped his proposal in favor of a bill passed in March to privatize the state-controlled wine and liquor system, create 1,200 new private wine and liquor store licenses and allow thousands of bars, restaurants and grocery stores to begin selling bottles of wine. It would leave the state's beer sales system largely in place.

However, it lacks support in the Senate, and since it passed, McIlhinney and other Republican senators have stressed that they would protect hometown beer businesses, including distributors, bars and breweries, that feared such an expansion would strictly benefit larger chain retailers and national beer brands.

As a result, McIlhinney has sought to work within the existing structure of beer licensees by protecting their businesses and avoiding handing over the state's liquor distribution and sales system to what he called "huge corporate interests."