HARRISBURG — A Republican plan designed to break down Pennsylvania’s Depression-era system of state-owned liquor stores passed a critical test Wednesday, leaving the measure poised to be approved by the House and sent to the state Senate.
The GOP majority easily defeated a “gut and replace” amendment sponsored by the ranking Democrat on the Liquor Control Committee, Rep. Paul Costa of Allegheny County, and the bill could pass the chamber during an unusual afternoon session today that was quickly scheduled.
Krystjan Callahan, chief of staff to the House Majority Leader, Mike Turzai, declined to say whether he was sure the votes for final passage were there. But the 108-91 defeat of Costa’s proposal was strong evidence.
“Everybody in this chamber recognizes that our current system for selling alcohol in Pennsylvania is an anachronism, it’s old-fashioned, and it needs changed,” said Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery, while debating Costa’s proposal. She called it “what essentially amounts to putting a new coat of paint on an old shed that’s falling down.”
The bill would give beer distributors the first shot at 1,200 wine and spirit licenses and open grocery stores to wine sales. Also, the state’s roughly 600 wine and spirits stores would be phased out as the number of private operators grows, so the state would remain in the liquor business at some level for an indefinite period.
The House on Wednesday approved seven amendments to the bill, including measures that would prohibit wine sales at self-checkout lines and encourage licenses to be spread geographically throughout counties.
Only one member crossed party lines in the vote over Costa’s amendment, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks.
Costa’s proposal would have kept the existing system largely in place but allowed greater pricing flexibility by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, authorized direct shipments of wine, permitted more stores to open on Sundays and added seven hours of sales on Sundays.
He said those changes were likely to generate $20 million to $70 million annually for the state.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said Costa’s approach would increase state revenues without eliminating jobs in the liquor sales industry. The union that represents liquor store employees has been lobbying heavily against the changes.
“We should not be here today (talking) about depriving people of their jobs, of their livelihoods,” Dermody said.
Gov. Tom Corbett favors liquor privatization, and he wants to devote the proceeds to help finance public education.
While Corbett has spoken of a change that would generate $1 billion for schools, Democrats said their own analysis indicated the figure under the current version of the bill would be closer to $425 million.
A House Republican spokesman said their latest estimate put it at $800 million, but a more precise figure would be released before today’s vote.