Liquor Privatization Advocate Gives Up On Bill, For Now

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Legislature's leading advocate of privatizing liquor and wine sales in Pennsylvania gave up the fight Tuesday until lawmakers reconvene after their summer break, acknowledging that he lacks majority support in the House and does not want the issue to be a distraction from passage of a state budget.

"Right now, we can't get it over the goal line," House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said as he emerged from a closed-door budget meeting between Republican legislative leaders and GOP Gov. Tom Corbett.

An amendment sponsored by Turzai underwent three hours of floor debate last week — the first time since the current system was established in 1933 that the privatization debate had advanced so far, House officials said. But House Speaker Sam Smith suspended the debate just as opponents sought to send the bill back to a committee that previously had gutted another privatization plan by Turzai.

Corbett on Tuesday pledged to work with Turzai over the summer in hopes of hammering out a compromise bill before the current two-year session of the Legislature ends Nov. 30.

"We have a lot to get done," the governor said. "I think that the fall is a better time" to debate privatization.

Last July, Turzai introduced a bill that called for selling the 620 state-owned liquor and wine stories and auctioning off twice that number of licenses to private retail operators. The bill spawned strong opposition from the union that represents the thousands of state-store employees.

In December, the Republican-controlled House Liquor Control Committee scrapped Turzai's bill in favor of a plan that would attempt to improve the profitability of state stores while providing more options for people in Pennsylvania to buy wine and beer from private retailers.

Turzai then wrote an amendment to that bill to shut down the state stores and replace them with as many as 1,600 privately owned ones while giving the state's more than 1,000 beer distributors the first shot at buying the retail liquor and wine licenses.

Wendell W. Young IV, president of a union local that represents about 2,500 state-store workers, said he'll continue to fight privatization in any form and that lawmakers should focus now on modernizing the existing state-owned system.

"Regardless of anyone's perspective on privatization, there's a realization that we're going to be running this system for a while and it ought to be run the best it can be," said Young, president of Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. "It ought to provide the most revenue it can while maintaining the best aspects of control. It ought to be as consumer-friendly as possible."

Turzai insisted that privatization can deliver the convenience, broad selection and competitive prices that consumers want, but allowed that it may be impossible to win passage this year and that the issue may have to wait for the next Legislature, which will be seated in December.

"It's close, and we need the summer to see whether or not we can get it done this session or if it becomes a next-session item," he told reporters.