Privatizing the sale of wine and hard liquor in Pennsylvania passed its first big test earlier today.
Members of the House Liquor Control committee voted along strictly partisan lines to approve an amended version of Gov. Corbett's proposal to turn over the state's 600-plus wine and spirits shops to the private sector.
The measure now heads to the House floor, where it could be voted on as early as this week. That would be the farthest a liquor-privatization bill has moved through the legislature.
"It's really the first step," said Rep. John Taylor (R., Philadelphia), the committee's chairman, noting that the issue has been discussed in the Capitol for years.
Corbett called it a “momentous first step to bring Pennsylvania into the 21st Century and provide Pennsylvanians with the convenience and choice that Americans in 48 other states enjoy.”
The committee on Monday made changes to Corbett's original proposal, which called for an aggressive auctioning off of state stores to the private sector, including supermarkets, convenience stores and big box stores. The amendment, sponsored by House Republicans, would scale that proposal back quite a bit.
For instance, under the amendment, state stores would not immediately shut down. Instead, they would be phased out over time, and may even remain open in certain more rural counties.
And grocery stores would only be able to sell wine to go, unless they apply for a special liquor license that allows them to sell beer as well.
As for the state's currently-operating beer distributors, they would get the first shot at applying for one of the 1,200 licenses to sell alcohol.
Democrats on the committee complained today that the measure was being rammed through without being properly vetted. They unsuccessfully tried to postpone the hearing, and reschedule a new one that would feature witnesses on both sides of the debate.
Republicans countered that the issue has been discussed for decades, and was vetted at length last year, when a separate privatization bill was being considered.
Going forward, the measure faces an uncertain future. It's not yet clear whether Republicans have the votes in the House to approve privatization without some Democratic support. Even it if clears the House, several top senators have expressed concerns about a full-scale selling off of the state system.
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