New Castle News

April 10, 2013

Our Opinion: Fate of liquor privatization is in hands of state Senate

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — In a few months, we may have a clearer picture of any likely changes to state liquor laws.

That’s because the ball is now in the court of the Pennsylvania Senate, where compromise will be essential if anything of consequence emerges from that chamber.

The state House already approved a variation of Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to privatize state liquor stores. In the House, Republicans comfortably control the chamber. But while the GOP also runs the Senate, the margin is a narrow 27 to 23.

And further clouding the waters is the fact several top-ranking Senate Republicans have openly questioned Corbett’s privatization plan. Instead, they are calling for improvements to the operations of the Liquor Control Board and the state store system, to make them more user friendly.

The bottom line in that stance is changes may be possible, but Pennsylvania government would continue to own and run liquor stores in the commonwealth.

This is starting to sound familiar. A governor proposes privatization of liquor store and the issue gets tied up in knots in the Legislature. The end result is a few adjustments, but no major reforms.

The main reason is that the status quo has powerful allies. In particular, legislative Democrats tend to align themselves with the union representing state store employees, which absolutely opposes privatization.

And reform proposals involve far more than merely selling off liquor stores to private entities. Plans call for liberalizing existing laws to expand alcohol sales in grocery stores and possibly other outlets.

The end result of such changes is uncertain, but beer distributors, bottle shop owners and tavern owners worry that competition from major retail outlets will damage or destroy their businesses. That’s no small concern, and these enterprises are putting pressure on lawmakers to ensure the final version of any reform protects their interests.

When you add all of this up, there are forces in place that would prefer the Legislature do nothing to state liquor rules. Rest assured there are plenty of lawmakers willing to comply.

If you look at public opinion polling in Pennsylvania, the results indicate most residents support liquor privatization. We presume that comes from a combination of consumers hoping for more choices and a general view that government shouldn’t be in the business of selling products.

But with public opinion, intensity counts. If liquor privatization fails once again in Pennsylvania, will most citizens simply shrug their shoulders, or are they prepared to hold politicians accountable?

The answer to that question may determine the fate of any reform.