The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 4, 2013

Liquor plans kept bottled up

Corbett didn’t share privatization with lawmakers

The Tribune-Democrat

— While we are delighted Gov. Tom Corbett has once more brought privatization of liquor sales to the front burner, we are disappointed in his willy-nilly approach.

His plan, which would privatize liquor sales and expand beer and wine outlets, is destined for failure. And with it, Pennsylvanians will continue to be stuck with an antiquated system that exists today in only two states.

Past plans by Govs. Richard Thornburgh and Tom Ridge bombed and we see nothing in Corbett’s effort – not even his tying liquor store license sales to boosting public education funding – to assure a better fate. 

“I cannot argue with the ideologues that argue that the government should not be in the business,” state Sen. John Wozniak said. “But it makes a lot of money for the state, it largely keeps liquor away from those under 21, the state stores are safe and they provide family-sustaining jobs.”

We’re not buying your arguments, Senator. They are the same, worn-out points privatization opponents have been espousing for decades. They don’t hold water.

Unfortunately, the veteran Westmont lawmaker’s points are being repeated by enough fellow legislators on both sides on the aisle to send the Corbett effort down the drain.

He’s right, though, that the state should not be in the business of selling liquor and wine to the public.

It also has no business offering private-sector jobs providing family-sustaining wages. It’s job is to create an atmosphere for more private sector businesses.

And why would privatization cause Pennsylvania a bigger problem with underage drinking than in the 48 other states that already sell liquor and wine under such a system?

We don’t argue the fact that state stores have come a long way in recent years in improving customer services. But privatizing liquor sales will mean larger product selections, cheaper prices and more-convenient hours of operation.

Why else do so many Pennsylvanians living in border towns travel to other states to make their purchases?

Privatization will also produce the same revenue numbers for the state, which gets its money from taxes on the products.

The Corbett plan calls for auctioning 1,200 licenses for retail sales of wine and spirits by county with an estimated $1 billion in proceeds pegged to go for a handful of specific uses in schools.

Grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, large retailers and beer distributors could file an application to simply sell beer and wine and/or bid on one of the 1,200 licenses for wine and spirits.

The system created under the plan would allow for a business to be a one-stop retail shop where beer, wine and spirits are sold under one roof.

There is much good in the Corbett plan. So why did he snub so many lawmakers – including those in his own party – not allowing them to preview the plan before it was announced?

“We haven’t heard anything,” Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, told CNHI reporter John Finnerty last week. “We are totally in the dark. Unfortunately, it has been characteristic of this administration that we don’t hear anything until we start getting calls from reporters.”

Poor politics, Mr. Corbett.

“Our proposal is part of my commitment to changing Harrisburg, streamlining government and moving Pennsylvania forward,” Corbett said.

We all can support that.

The governor’s plan would dissolve the state store system and get $1 billion this way:

* $575 million from sales of wholesale liquor licenses.

* $224 million, proceeds from auctions of 1,200 state stores.

* $107 million, new wine and beer retail licenses.

* $112.5 million, enhanced licenses to allow beer distributors to sell spirits.

A major concern with it is that a set amount of licenses would go to each county and that the successful bidders could set up wherever they choose. That could leave some rural areas without a store within a reasonable traveling distance.

A lot of other questions exist, too, obviously. Could it be not enough study was involved in putting the plan together? Or that not enough conversation has been held to answer everyone’s questions?

All that is hard to imagine considering how long this issue has languished in Harrisburg – and anguished consumers statewide.

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