The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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April 25, 2014

Does state know when to say when?

HARRISBURG — Booze sales on Sunday have proven so popular the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is breaking a state law limiting how many stores the system can operate on the first day of the week.

And with no resistance to its efforts yet, the liquor system is pressing on with plans to add Sunday hours at more stores, LCB spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman said.

The reason no one has intervened is that it should be the board’s job to ensure the law is being followed, said Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.

Turzai has been the chief proponent of dismantling the liquor system.

Republican lawmakers and legislative staff have been debating what to do about the LCB’s move to open more stores on Sunday, despite the law prohibiting it, Miskin said.

The House Republicans’ preferred long-term solution: Privatize the liquor system, Miskin said.

“It’s another reason they need to get out of the business of selling alcohol and focus on becoming a regulatory and enforcement agency,” Miskin said. “The LCB is flouting and ignoring the law. It’s an example of the inherent conflict: Either you’re an enforcement and regulatory agency or you’re a business.”

Kriedeman said the system has been exceeding the Sunday store limit since it abandoned an experiment with wine vending machines in 32 grocery stores. Those kiosks were counted as liquor store locations. When they were eliminated, the board’s store count dropped, meaning the percentage of stores with Sunday hours increased, Kriedeman said.

However, after that the LCB continued to add locations with Sunday hours even while closing other stores, she said.

A bill to loosen the 25 percent restriction passed both chambers of the General Assembly in 2010. But the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Ed Rendell over objections about another facet of the legislation.

That means the 25 percent ceiling remains.

“The fact is, the law is the law,” Miskin said. “We need to kill the LCB’s conflict.”

At the end of 2012-13, the LCB had 26 percent of its stores open on Sunday, according to the board’s year-end retail report.

Now there are 27.5 percent of the state’s 608 liquor stores open on Sunday, Kriedeman said.

“We want to be responsive and meet consumer demand,” she said.

Any opposition to the LCB’s expansion of Sunday sales has been forestalled as Republicans focus on completely dismantling the system and Democrats push Sunday sales as a key part of “modernization” to keep the state store system intact.

Expanding Sunday hours is one of the most popular measures included in Capitol discussions about how to reform the system, said Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence County.

Gibbons said the 25 percent ceiling was created because conservatives lobbying for privatization don’t want to provide the LCB with the opportunity to succeed.

Gibbons is one of almost 100 co-sponsors – mostly Democrats – of a “modernization” bill authored by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County. The bill was formally introduced earlier this month. In addition to expanded Sunday sales, the legislation would give state stores greater flexibility on retail pricing. The bill also allows the LCB to create a modular state store that would be housed inside grocery stores.

Those lawmakers estimate that expanded Sunday sales would generate $22.5 million a year in tax revenue for the state. The pricing reforms and “store within a store” concept would generate a combined $100 million, according to the lawmakers’ estimates.

Kriedeman said that the LCB estimates that about half its stores would generate enough money on Sundays to justify adding hours on that day of the week.

State data show the stores that are open on Sunday are busier than any other day of the week, except Friday and Saturday – and Sunday sales are allowed only between noon and 5 p.m.

The type of reforms suggested by modernization proponents would offer the types of improved access and cheaper prices that customers want to see come out of reforms to the liquor monopoly, Gibbons said.

Liquor privatization was one of three policy priorities set by Gov. Tom Corbett at the beginning of the 2013-14 legislative session. Transportation funding passed last fall. Pension reform and liquor privatization remain as lawmakers prepare to return to Harrisburg next week for the last week of April. Lawmakers have just one session week scheduled in May before the final legislative push in June ahead of the state’s budget deadline.

A bill to dismantle the state store system passed the state House in March 2013. The Senate failed to take a final vote on the issue last year. With uncertainty swirling around the state budget, there will be intense pressure for something to get done, Gibbons noted.

“We’re just waiting on the Senate,” Miskin said.

Senate Republicans will discuss liquor privatization in a closed-door caucus meeting next week, said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester.

“There is still no specific plan that people are rallying around,” Arneson said. “There are ongoing productive discussions.”

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