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Lawmaker adds incentives for state store sale

February 25, 2008


The latest attempt to privatize Pennsylvania's state-owned liquor stores faces the same formidable coalition as earlier tries and the added hurdle that stores now are widely viewed as more customer-friendly.

 

"Most Pennsylvanians seem satisfied with the way the state store system is now. There isn't a hue and cry for privatization," said Al Neri, editor of The Insider, a statewide political newsletter.

Sen. Rob Wonderling, R-Montgomery County, is trying to sell the liquor stores, an undertaking that former GOP Govs. Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge couldn't accomplish. Wonderling has added twists to his bill, and he said he's optimistic about its chances.

"I know this isn't going to happen anytime soon," Wonderling said. "It's a marathon, not a sprint."

Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell thinks state stores would be better in private hands -- he also is trying to lease the turnpike to private enterprise -- but he believes it would be "unrealistic" to pursue liquor store divestiture, spokesman Chuck Ardo said.

The combination of unions representing state store workers and conservative Republicans concerned about the state having less control over alcohol sales "will forever defeat any attempt to change the current system," Ardo said.

For the foreseeable future, that political climate is unlikely to change, said Steven Peterson, a professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University's Harrisburg campus.

"I just don't see anything that's likely to change the dynamic," he said.

"There seems to be more customer orientation" at the stores, which have Sunday sales, more availability of better wines at reasonable prices and friendlier clerks, Peterson said.

Older Pennsylvanians might recall drab stores with rude clerks. Customers once had to submit requests to clerks, who would go behind partitions to get bottles. The public was shielded from seeing most of the bottles in a system designed after Prohibition. Pennsylvania is regarded as one of the tightest "control" states in the nation.

But Wonderling isn't accepting the premise that change is impossible. His proposal would maintain some state control of liquor stores. Four hundred of the state's 600-plus liquor stores would be auctioned off, but 200 would not be sold. They would be placed under contract to private firms, but the state would retain 48 percent control.

In another attempt to rebut criticism of privatization, Wonderling said he told Mothers Against Drunk Driving to find the toughest alcohol-related enforcement measures in the nation and he would include those features in the bill.

The other proposal that distinguishes Wonderling's bill from past efforts: He would put the estimated $800 million from the sale of stores in an interest-bearing account to provide annual revenue for improving health care in Pennsylvania.

The fundamental basis for Wonderling's approach is his belief that running a liquor store monopoly isn't a core function of government.

An added benefit, he said, would be "more competitive prices and more choice in selection."

Supporters of the current system see an ongoing financial benefit to the state. The Liquor Control Board pumps about $500 million yearly into the state's General Fund. It's an argument that has helped defeat proposals to sell the state stores in the past.

"The system we have is working well. It provides money to the general fund and some control of underage drinking," said Gary Tuma, spokesman for Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia. "(Fumo) sees no need to change."

The most recent attempt to sell the stores was by Ridge in 1997, when both chambers of the General Assembly were controlled by Republicans (Democrats now control the House). Ridge proposed increasing the number of licenses and opening 757 private stores. His plan never got rolling in the Legislature.

Thornburgh tried in 1981 but ran into opposition from religious groups, mid-state conservatives and union backers.

Peterson said the system won't change unless there's a public outcry for it.

Brad Bumsted can be reached at bbumsted@tribweb.com or 717-787-1405.

 

 
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