Pennsylvania close to historic vote on Prohibition-era liquor laws

Pennsylvania lawmakers will vote Thursday afternoon on ending restrictive liquor laws that date back to 1933, but the Prohibition-era booze battle is far from over.

Beer_at_a_grocery_store_in_New_York_CityPennsylvania and Utah are the only two states that kept monopolies on the sales of beer, wine, and spirits in the decades after the 18th Amendment was repealed and Prohibition ended.

The state’s House of Representatives will hold a vote on a complicated resolution to privatize sales to consumers, which in itself is a first for the Commonwealth. That would take away much of the power from the state’s Liquor Control Board, one of the biggest buyers of booze in the world.

In its current form, the law would require the Liquor Control Board to sell most of its proprietary state stores to private interests, with people who have dedicated beer distributorships getting the first chance to buy licenses. Grocery stores would be able to sell wine, though probably not beer, and big-box stores and pharmacies would sell wine, with limited beer sales.

Currently, Pennsylvania consumers need to travel to specially designated state-controlled stores to buy wine and spirits, with limited amounts of beer sold at bars, restaurants, and a handful of grocery stores. Cases of beer can only be sold by select beer distributors.

If the resolution is passed by a majority of the Republican-controlled House on Thursday afternoon, it moves onto the state Senate on April 9, where it will likely be rewritten.

The law’s future in the Pennsylvania Senate is far from certain, as a united coalition of unions, social conservatives, drunk-driving opponents, beer brewers, and Democratic lawmakers oppose it for various reasons.

Historically, that coalition has been very successful in articulating its points and rallying opposition across political and social lines.

The supporters of the liquor privatization law include Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and many Republicans, tea party members, and fiscal conservatives. The state’s voters also have approved, in various polls, moves to allow liquor sales at retail and convenience stores, like many other states, and more products in more stores.

But Corbett’s powerful predecessors lost the booze battle in previous years to a fight that has its roots in the second term of former Governor Gifford Pinchot in 1933.

As a vocal “dry” in late 1933, Pinchot used his position as governor to make sure the state’s liquor system made buying booze difficult. Private competition was the evil that Pinchot really feared, because of the potential for political corruption.

Related Story: A look at Pinchot’s liquor control system in 1933

In the past, the liberal-conservative alliance defeated efforts to privatize liquor by two powerhouse Republican governors, Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge. Ridge was the last to tackle privatization, in 1997, until Corbett took office.

Currently, the board’s critics point to the same two issues that Pinchot talked about in 1934: First, that consumers are paying too much for beer, wine, and liquor in Pennsylvania; and second, that they have access to fewer products.

The board’s counterclaim is that its system is one of the largest bulk buyers of liquor in the world, and it passes those savings on to consumers. And the state has changed its laws in recent years to extend store hours and offer some products at grocery stores and other outlets.

The board’s supporters also point to maintaining union rather than private-sector jobs, the board’s ability to control responsible access to liquor, its ability to protect the long-time investment of beer distributors in the system, and the constant flow of revenue from the board to taxpayers as benefits of the traditional system.

Corbett and privatization supporters hope to realize $800 million from the sales of liquor and beer sales licenses. The money would go into the state’s education budget.

Privatization opponents will also point to the struggles of another state, Washington, which recently ended its Prohibition-era battle over liquor.

In November 2011, Washington voters decided in a referendum to end its Pennsylvania-style liquor system. Prices were higher for hard liquor after privatization, reports a local newspaper as of January 2013, because of taxes that were tacked onto the law.

Taxes aren’t currently part of Pennsylvania’s proposed law, except that the state will continue to levy an 18 percent Johnstown Flood Tax on liquor products, which dates back to 1936.

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Editor’s Note: If you are in the Philadelphia area in the next few weeks, check out the National Constitution Center’s acclaimed feature exhibition, American Spirits: The Rise And Fall Of Prohibition, on view through April 28.  For more info, go to prohibition.constitutioncenter.org.

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