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New proposal waters down liquor privatization plan

By John Craven, Reporter, JCraven@wfmz.com
Published On: Jun 18 2013 07:00:00 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 19 2013 05:00:49 AM CDT

Gov. Tom Corbett wants to get Pennsylvania out of the booze business, but his privatization plan is on life support.

HARRISBURG, Pa. -

Gov. Tom Corbett wants to get Pennsylvania out of the booze business, but his privatization plan is on life support.

Now, one local lawmaker is offering a less ambitious alternative that seeks to protect mom-and-pop beer businesses.

At Beerco Distributing in Allentown, Robert Mickus can sell you almost any kind of brew you want -- as long as it comes in a case.

"It pays my mortgage," he said. "It pays my health insurance and it pays for the food on my table."

But like a lot of distributors, Mickus is nervous about Corbett's push to overhaul alcohol sales in Pennsylvania.

"It does scare me," said Mickus.

With opposition mounting, powerful State Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R - Bucks Co., is proposing a watered-down compromise.

"To try to do this all at once caused a lot of problems," McIlhinney said of Corbett's plan.

McIlhinney's alternative would not allow any new grocery or convenience stores to sell alcohol. That was a cornerstone of Corbett's plan. He insists grocery store sales will be more convenient for customers, but beer distributors fear they can't compete.

Many distributors spent tens of thousands of dollars for their beer licenses.

"I would not be able to stay in business," said Mickus.

As far as wine and liquor, those infamous "state stores" would stay open -- for now. But they'd have competition.

McIlhinney would allow beer distributors like Mickus, as well as restaurants and pubs, to sell spirits. Those businesses would still have to buy booze wholesale from the state, but they'd get it at a discount.

The idea is to run the "state stores" out of business -- slowly.

"They're being charged with closing the stores once the private sector has fulfilled that service in the area," said McIlhinney.

Opponents call the compromise a buzzkill.

"More retail outlets will be able to sell wine and spirits, but they'll still have to get their product from the government," said Nathan Benefield with the Commonwealth Foundation, which supports Corbett's original proposal. "And that's going to mean less selection for consumers."

Even Mickus thinks that adding liquor sales would not help him out much.

"That's a completely different business, and it's a different business model," he said.

Mickus would get another perk though. Under the McIlhinney plan, distributors, taverns, and restaurants would also be allowed to sell six-packs. Right now, they are limited to cases and kegs.

Either way, time is running out. Lawmakers in Harrisburg have two weeks to pass something before the state budget is due. Small business are hoping they're not left with a nasty hangover.