New Castle News

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June 20, 2013

Our Opinon: Liquor reform plan faces dubious revisions

NEW CASTLE — Getting meaningful liquor reform legislation passed this month is the equivalent of threading a needle.

That is if the needle is small and the thread is thick.

Gov. Tom Corbett is pushing the Legislature to pass a liquor privatization measure by the end of the month, so that its changes will coincide with the state’s budget.

But this week, Senate action confirmed what everyone pretty much knew: Corbett’s views on liquor reform won’t be reflected in whatever that chamber passes.

The governor, along with the House, advanced a plan that would shutter Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor stores and end the commonwealth’s involvement in the wholesale purchase and sale of alcohol. In essence, government no longer would be in the liquor business, allowing for private liquor stores, as well as expanded sales for beer distributors and supermarkets.

But a plan now being advanced in the Senate would not close any state liquor stores, and would keep the commonwealth in the wholesale liquor business — at least for the time being. Instead, it would permit existing distributors and other businesses to purchase broader licenses.

Apparently, this means private liquor retailers would compete with state-owned stores — the idea being that private enterprise eventually would make the state’s stores moot.

The measure is being advanced with the notion its changes are more gradual than those being presented by Corbett. But any advantages strike us as problematical.

For example, wouldn’t the value of private licenses be less if businesses had to compete with state-owned facilities? Wouldn’t that water down the market and discourage private investment? And wouldn’t the state lose money on the value of these licenses if they were worth less?

We’re not opposed to measured change in Pennsylvania’s liquor system, but having government-owned and private establishments operating side by side doesn’t strike us as practical. And rather than promoting efficiency, this setup would add to overall costs that consumers would have to pay.

We should note this Senate plan stems in large part from the fact support for privatization is marginal in that chamber. All 23 Democrats in the 50-member Senate are opposed to the governor’s plan, while several Republicans have openly expressed reservations about it as well. The half-way approach being touted appears to be an effort to cobble together some sort of majority in the Senate.

But halfhearted measures may not accomplish anything here. And they may find little support elsewhere in Harrisburg. Increasingly, the current attempt at liquor privatization in Pennsylvania appears to be as doomed as its predecessors.

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