Privatizing liquor sales in Pennsylvania will increase access to alcohol and lead to more social problems.
That was the unequivocal - and, some would say, unapologetic - message Tuesday at the first of three hearings in the Senate on Gov. Corbett's push to get government out of the business of running wine and hard liquor stores.
The hearing, in the Senate's Law and Justice committee, focused on the impact privatization would have on public health and law enforcement. Witnesses included the union representing State Police troopers, who are responsible for liquor enforcement in the state, and drug and alcohol prevention and treatment groups.
Even those advocates who did not specifically take a position on privatization Tuesday said they believed privatization would mean more liquor outlets, increased consumption and a spike in alcohol-related crime and violence.
"I'm a clinician, not a politician," said Deb Beck, president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers of Pennsylvania. "And I don't think we should privatize because I think it will work - there will be an increase in alcohol sales."
She added: "And why in the world would we want to increase access to something that causes so many problems?"
In many ways, the hearing was yet another reminder that Republicans who control the Senate are far from sold on something Corbett wants badly: a quick victory in the battle over how alcohol is sold.
The administration has been pushing for the Senate to swiftly take up the liquor privatization bill that passed the House last month, and reach a compromise before legislators break for the summer in July. The House measure would phase out the State Stores while allowing entrepreneurs - beer distributors first among them - to begin selling wine and liquor.
Getting a privatization bill passed and signed is considered important to Corbett's 2014 reelection chances, and the governor and his staff have made it known to fellow Republicans in the legislature that it is a top priority.
But the clock is ticking - and top Republicans in the Senate have made no secret that they don't like the privatization proposal the House passed. Tuesday's hearing was the first of three hearings on the issue. The second is scheduled for mid-May, and the last one for early June.
Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks), the Law and Justice committee's chairman, said the goal is to craft a revised privatization bill by mid-June. But that would essentially leave House members with just two weeks to consider it, debate it, and make any changes - this while they also trying to reach agreement on the state budget for the next fiscal year, as well as tackle other major policy initiatives such as transportation funding.
Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said the administration remains optimistic.
"The governor looks forward to working with Senate leadership and Sen. McIlhinney on promoting a liquor privatization bill that promotes consumer choice and convenience," Harley said.
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