By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Don't touch that bottle.
It belongs to Pennsylvania, at least for now.
Richard Granger, clad in a bright yellow shirt, is pleased. He stood alongside dozens of people Wednesday on the marble steps of the state Capitol, the most obvious sign of layers of effort that helped stop a vote to privatize Pennsylvania's state-owned liquor business.
Granger and his brightly-clad comrades are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents many of the nearly 5,000 workers in Pennsylvania’s liquor business. The union led the opposition to the privatization plan pushed by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, staging a sit-in at the Capitol and telling members to voice their opposition to local lawmakers.
Granger and others refused to claim victory on Wednesday, saying they would continue to vocally oppose the privatization plan until there was no chance for it to become law.
“It may be an anachronism, but it works for Pennsylvania,” Granger said of the state-owned and operated liquor store system.
It certainly works for the unions, though at one point on Monday night the idea seemed headed for the proverbial gutter. But House Republicans cut off debate after 10 p.m. That came after several hours of talk without taking a vote on the proposal, which was in a proposed amendment offered by Turzai.
Promised votes Tuesday and Wednesday failed to materialize as the union sit-in continued and other unions urged its members to call lawmakers and urge opposition. Turzai told reporters Wednesday the bill would remain on the House’s voting calendar for Monday — their next session day — but other Republicans said the number of votes for the measure had declined after behind-closed-door meetings Tuesday and Wednesday.
The UFCW got plenty of help from other unions. The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, one of the largest labor unions in the state, among others, sent notices to members asking them to call lawmakers about the liquor privatization bill.
“We need to make sure our representatives hear from as many people as possible about why this blatant giveaway from extreme politicians to their corporate donors is bad for Pennsylvania working families,” one statement from the union said.
Union groups have argued that more than 4,500 jobs will be lost if the state system is privatized, but Republicans have countered by arguing that the 1,600 private sector stores will create additional opportunities for jobs — including union jobs.
Steve Miskin, Turzai’s spokesman, downplayed the role of the unions in keeping the bill from getting the necessary votes.
“Truly this is not a union issue. It’s a consumer issue. Either you’re for Pennsylvania consumers and taxpayers or you are against them,” he said.
Other opposition to the plan came from the Pennsylvania Malt Beverage Distribution Association, which represents beer wholesalers and distributors.
In Turzai’s plan, beer distributors would have the first shot at buying one of the 1,600 new liquor licenses — finally allowing Pennsylvanians to purchase beer and liquor in the same location — but the association said it had other concerns. Primarily, they are worried about other licenses being bought up by “big box” stores that represent competition in a previously closed marketplace.
“Ultimately, this amendment is really intended to drive beer distributors out of the market,” the association warned in a memo to its members last month. Consumers, meanwhile, remain stuck with a system that is uniquely complicated in the United States.
Polls have consistently shown a majority of Pennsylvanians are in favor of privatizing the liquor system, but the state monopoly set up in the wake of Prohibition has remained stubborn despite numerous attempts to end it, including efforts by the past two Republican administrations in Harrisburg during the 1980s and 1990s.
Jay Ostrich is communications director for the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank here that has been pushing for the privatization plan. He said the failure to bring the issue to a vote was a sobering reminder of government’s inability to get out of its own way.
“When broad-based bipartisan support from voters isn't enough to get the job done, it clearly suggests something is broken under the dome,” he said in an email.
Gov. Tom Corbett has supported the privatization plan since he took office in 2011, and reportedly was helping drum up votes from both sides of the aisle this week. Publicly, however, he played off his role in the privatization battle.
“Do I support privatization? Absolutely,” he told reporters Tuesday. “This is a good first step, let’s get this first step done.”
Even if the vote had been taken this week — or is taken next week — Republican leadership in the state Senate has all but shut off the possibility of approving the bill before the end of the budget process this month.
Senate President Joe Scarnati said this week that he supported the Turzai proposal, and looked forward to working on it “in the fall.