Wine privatization bill heads to House
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Senate advanced legislation Thursday supported by Gov. Tom Wolf to break state government control over wine sales, but its fate was uncertain in the House, where majority Republicans have demanded that a stronger privatization measure be a companion to a bipartisanbudget deal.
The 29-21 vote came as the Senate scrambled to wrap up most of its budget-related legislation, although any agreement that could end the five-month-old budget stalemate was in shambles after House Republicans revolted and passed a significantly smaller spending plan.
The Senate's vote was largely party line: two Democrats, including Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, joined Republicans in supporting the measure, while four Republicans joined Democrats in opposing it.
It passed with little floor debate other than a protest by Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, who said the state would be sending the wrong message by expanding sales of alcoholic beverages while the House holds up Folmer's legislation to legalize medical marijuana for the sick. Folmer's district includes parts of eastern York County.
Alcohol, he said, is "one of the most damaging and socially accepted drugs in the world" and far more damaging than marijuana.
"I simply do not understand how anyone can be for the proliferation of alcohol and against the use of medical cannabis for sick children, veterans and others," Folmer said. "I find this to be, for me, hypocritical."
Under the bill, some 14,000 holders of takeout beer licenses — including restaurants, bars, hotels, supermarkets and delis — would be able to sell up to four bottles of wine to a customer. Beer distributorships were not included in the bill, and selling hard liquor would remain under the exclusive jurisdiction of the approximately 600 state-owned stores.
Cutting out perks for beer distributorships or private licenses for hard liquor could be a sticking point with House Republicans.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said Thursday that House GOP leadership would review the bill to determine whether to make changes.
"If it is indeed wine privatization, we want just to make sure it does indeed privatize the wine system in Pennsylvania," Reed said.
Republican backers say they expect supermarkets or big-box stores to get into the business by purchasing the takeout licenses from the current holders or the state. The bill also would allow state-owned stores more freedom to set hours and market products to improve profitability, Republicans say.
"Maybe some of it will result in some competition between the public and private stores," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh. "In the end, what might happen is to provide greater price competitiveness for the consumer, that costs may come down on the public-sector side."
Democratic critics said the proliferation of wine outlets would create problem liquor stores and put state stores out of business and state store employees out of jobs.
The bill also would allow casinos to serve liquor, wine and beer around the clock — currently casinos can serve it for 19 hours out of the day — and allow wineries to ship its product directly to consumers in Pennsylvania.