Grove: Pa. needs liquor privatization funds for GOP budget plan

The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — A House Republican from York County says lawmakers should be working to improve customer convenience for Pennsylvanians who want to buy alcohol — and the best way to do that is for the state government to get out of the wholesale booze business.

State Rep. Seth Grove this week voted in favor of a package of bills that would change to how alcohol is sold in Pennsylvania, moving to privatize wholesale wine and spirits sales and expand the retail outlets where booze is available.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Seth Grove reacts to Gov. Tom Wolf's 2017-18 budget address at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In addition to his philosophical opposition to state control of alcohol sales, the Dover Township Republican said the revenue anticipated from liquor privatization is a key part of the budget proposal House Republicans recently sent to the Senate.

Led by the House Republicans, lawmakers voted 105-84 Tuesday in favor of a wholesale divestment proposal, sending it with other proposals to the Senate for its consideration.

The House voted to allow more grocery stores to seek permits to sell wine, no longer restricting the permits to stores with seating capacity, and retailers would be able to buy wine from brokers in the private sector.

“Every day that passes that we’re not able to continue to update our antiquated liquor systems is another day of missed opportunities,” said Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

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Rep. Joe Markosek, a Democrat from Allegheny County, said the change would help businesses at the expense of taxpayers, as state stores would have to compete with groceries that can focus on just the most popular varieties.

“If there ever was a template on how to crash a business and hurt taxpayers, this is it,” Markosek said.

Representatives also approved letting restaurant and hotel licensees sell up to 3 liters (almost 1 gallon) of takeout liquor per customer.

Another measure would allow privately owned retail liquor stores, an expansion designed to fill gaps in the state that are not adequately served by the 600 stores of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Markosek, the ranking Democrat on Appropriations, said new fees collected under the wholesale divestment bill would be less than the liquor system currently provides to state coffers. He also warned that driving the system out of business would put about 5,000 people out of work and add to the state pension system’s debt.

Supporters said the state-store workers would find jobs in the private stores that would be succeeding them.

“This is not a shiny new asset,” said Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland. “This is an asset that’s old and tired and needs to be retired.”

Pennsylvania is facing a $3 billion budget deficit heading into next year. Earlier this month, House Republicans pushed a budget proposal through to the Senate that would decrease state spending for the first time since the 2011-12 fiscal year.

The $31.5 billion proposal represents a decrease of nearly $246 million compared to the enacted 2016-17 budget and more than $815 million less than proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf's proposal had included $1 billion in new taxes — sans sales and income-tax increases — but the House GOP proposal doesn't include any of those new taxes.

House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, said the proposal calls for a combination of spending cuts and gains expected from gambling modernization and liquor privatization to close the deficit.

— Staff reporter David Weissman contributed to this report.