The fate of the 18 state-run liquor stores in Luzerne County hangs in the balance with Gov. Tom Corbett's plan to privatize the way licenses are issued for the state's liquor, wine and beer sellers.
The proposal would retire an oft-criticized state-liquor monopoly, a setup still used in only two states: Pennsylvania and Utah. The plan involves shutting about 620 state-owned wine and liquor stores and auctioning off 1,200 wine and liquor store licenses.
Wegmans, the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocer that operates a store in Wilkes-Barre Township, already sells beer, but spokeswoman Jo Natale said the company supports any effort that would give customers greater convenience and choice.
The same can be said for Weis Markets. While we are still reviewing the details of Gov. Corbett's proposal, we think it's a positive first step that focuses on improved customer access and has the potential to create a free and open marketplace for the sale of wine and beer, said Dennis Curtin, a spokesman for Sunbury-based Weis Markets.
Like Wegmans, Weis already sells beer in select stores.
Some grocers, including Schiel's ShurSave market in Parsons, have state wine and spirit shops attached with entrances between the grocery store and the liquor store.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, said these types of stores are great for consumers and show the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is modernizing to serve customers. He believes more needs to be done, including additional stores offering Sunday hours.
Currently, only three of the wine and spirit shops in Luzerne County are open Sundays.
But Corbett's plan, Pashinski said, is irresponsible and he cannot support it.
When you're dealing with alcohol, Pashinski said, properly trained employees need to handle sales. While he doesn't doubt many stores that might try to obtain a license would do a good job, there is too big a chance that not enough of them will. This is a lethal product and it needs to be sold responsibly, Pashinski said.
Corbett said his plan takes underage sales into consideration and he's proposing significantly higher fines for stores that sell to minors.
Pairing liquor privatization and education funding came as a surprise to state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, who chided the governor for a bizarre and unhealthy attempt to tie education achievement to what can only be described as a one-time, alcohol-funded stimulus package.
Both Yudichak and Pashinski said they are wary of the governor's continued efforts to get out of profitable ventures such as the lottery, which the administration announced recently it wants to outsource to a British firm.
Now, the governor wants to put a ‘for sale' sign on another profitable public asset, the state liquor stores, and put another 5,000 Pennsylvanians out of work, said Yudichak. With chronic unemployment hovering over 9 percent, how can putting 5,000 people out of work be good for business in Pennsylvania?
But shrinking government while raising money for education is something one of this area's state senators said could be a powerful enough combination to move the proposal further along than past attempts, including one last session than failed to make it out of a House committee.
We are in a time when there is strong public support for increased investment in key areas such as education and health care, said Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township. If Gov. Corbett's plan comes across as a practical and responsible way to generate revenue for these purposes and to shrink state government, then it would seem to have a better chance of moving through the process than its predecessors.
Dave Shipula, who owns Beer Super in Wilkes-Barre, said it was premature to comment on the proposal without fully understanding it, but he hoped it wouldn't push mom-and-pop beer distributors out of business with exorbitant license costs.
He said he hoped any plan would include provisions to allow beer distributors to sell smaller packages of beer, such as six- or 12-packs.