A secret Capitol booze pow-wow

The legislature doesn't always wait until the absolute last minute to tackle tricky matters.

On Wednesday, in a room far from the public eye, key players in the House and Senate liquor privatization debate quietly huddled behind closed doors to try and hammer out some of their differences on the issue. They included House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), the chamber's most outspoken privatization advocate; Rep. John Taylor (R., Philadelphia), who chairs the House Liquor Control Committee; Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware); and Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks), chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, which oversees liquor issues. 

By all accounts, it was an unusual gathering. Taylor put it this way in an interview afterwards: "It's very unusual on any issue, let alone liquor."

And, somewhat surprisingly, several people emerged declaring optimism that a liquor privatization deal can be reached by July 1, when the budget is due and legislators typically break for the summer.

"The good news is, it was a pretty calm discussion," said Taylor. "It was very productive."

But can there be a meeting of the minds on liquor by the end of the month? "Yes," the Philadelphia Republican said. "Very much so. I think even without this meeting today, there will be a bill sent over [from the Senate] that we will back."

The ball, at least at the moment, is in the Senate's court - and specifically, in McIlhinney's hands. Though the House has passed a privatization bill, McIlhinney has promised
to deliver - by next week, in fact - a new privatization plan that is widely expected to become the blueprint to begin negotiating a compromise.

It will not be an easy task. Gov. Corbett and the GOP-controlled House have advocated for a bolder privatization plan than the Senate. In fact, one of the key sticking points, according to Taylor, is whether or not to hold off on privatizing the wholesale operations of the state-run Liquor Control Board. Though somewhat esoteric, the question of who gets to deliver wine and hard liquor to stores is big business - and hotly contested.

For his part, McIlhinney has said he does not want to rush into selling off the LCB's wholesale side. He believes those operations will be worth more once the retail end is privatized, resulting in more outlets selling wine and hard liquor.

Yet Turzai and others in the House have made it clear they think privatization would be incomplete without selling off the wholesale piece.

So has Gov. Corbett. Here is what he said when asked about it at a press conference Wednesday in the Capitol: "I believe that it's in the best interest of Pennsylvania to sell the wholesale. I also believe it will be very difficult to deliver, with the system that we have today, at the levels we are going to need to do it."

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