HARRISBURG — The past week saw state Capitol developments in the public debate over how to reduce the cost of public employee pensions and fund transportation infrastructure — two issues that could easily have been abandoned after a full-court press by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett this summer failed to win the Legislature’s approval.
Conspicuously missing have been signs of movement regarding a third agenda item of Corbett’s that stalled in the Legislature: privatizing the sales of wine and hard liquor in a state known for its Prohibition-era restrictions.
It’s hardly dead, however, and with Republican majorities in both chambers and support among some of the state’s most powerful politicians, liquor privatization could easily re-emerge in the year left before the current legislative session expires.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said privatization remains a popular idea with the public and with rank-and-file lawmakers, and his office has produced a complicated “proposed compromise,” dated Aug. 15, that shows work on the topic has continued over the summer.
The idea goes back three decades in Harrisburg, though Republican Govs. Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge were unable to make it happen.
There is a great deal at stake. The state’s system of 605 liquor stores employs about 4,500 people, most of them store employees, and supplements its workforce with hundreds of additional seasonal employees. Last year it did $1.7 billion in sales and pumped $512 million into the state’s general fund.
The issue gained new momentum in January, when Corbett proposed privatizing the stores; expanding licenses to include groceries, convenience stores and other retailers; and directing the estimated $1 billion in proceeds for public education.
The House followed in March with passage of a bill to create 1,200 new private wine and liquor store licenses and let thousands of bars, restaurants and groceries sell wine. Existing beer distributors would get first crack at buying the new licenses and could decide if they wanted to sell wine, liquor or both. Additional licenses would also be sold.
In June, during the run-up to passage of the state budget, Corbett pushed hard, saying during a brief news conference that he was flexible about details but hoped to be signing a bill by the end of the month.
That did not happen. Republicans in the Senate worked up an alternative approach but eventually decided not to have a floor vote. At the same time, the House GOP leadership balked at the Senate-passed transportation bill.
The proposal developed by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi would let beer distributors sell wine and liquor and other retail outlets sell wine, but the state would remain in the wholesale business of shipping wine and liquor. Rural areas would get some reassurances that stores would remain in their area.
When the budget was enacted without the other measures, Corbett said he had not given up.
In the ensuing three months there has not been much public activity on liquor privatization, and the topic was notably absent in the past week amid renewed discussions on transportation and pensions.
But Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni said the governor remains strongly supportive and hopes for action this fall.
“This governor and Mr. Turzai were able to move a vehicle for privatization farther than anyone else has been able to do,” Pagni said. “That’s significant in itself.”
Despite work on the topic that has continued in recent months, Senate Republican spokesman Erik Arneson said there has not been a breakthrough.
“It’s not easy, but I don’t think anybody has pulled the plug on the effort,” Arneson said. “We might all have preferred approaches, but I don’t think any of us have a view of what an approach would look like that gets everyone on the same page at this moment. If we did, we would have been moving the bill this week.”
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said liquor privatization isn’t a big priority for most Pennsylvanians, and it would be a mistake to make alcohol more widely available.
“I think we should leave wine and spirits to the next term,” Costa said. “Let’s focus on transportation spending — without it being linked.”
Mark Scolforo covers the Legislature for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at mscolforoap.org, and is on Twitter: houseofbuddy.