With a banner behind him displaying words like “consumer choice” and “consumer convenience,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett announced an aggressive new proposal Wednesday to privatize the state-owned liquor industry.
The long-awaited announcement came after weeks of speculation over what Corbett would do with liquor privatization.
Although the main tenets of the proposal were similar to what most anticipated — with the crux of the plan being to sell off the retail and wholesale operations of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board — Corbett’s announcement did take one unexpected twist.
The governor said that a projected $1 billion in revenue from the sale would be given directly to public schools over the course of the next four years.
Although previous governors have tried to push through similar legislation, Corbett is the first in the state’s history to propose using privatization funds for education.
During a press conference on Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Corbett said he was not going “halfway” with his privatization plans.
“The selling of alcohol is not a core responsibility of government,” he said. “But education is.”
Specifically, Corbett outlined his goal to allow all retail beer distributors — which are currently only permitted to sell beer in cases or kegs — to sell beer, wine and hard liquor all at once. He is also pushing to allow supermarkets in the state to sell both beer and wine.
Additionally, Corbett’s plan would close the approximately 600 state stores in Pennsylvania that currently sell wine and spirits, replacing them with about 1,200 private stores that would operate by permit.
Administration officials who spoke on Wednesday said they expect to announce a House sponsor of a privatization bill early next week.
Although various public opinion polls in recent months have shown that the majority of Pennsylvanians support privatization, the measure may face difficulty in making its way through the legislature.
A similar privatization plan proposed by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) failed to make its way through the House this past summer.
Rep. Paul Costa (D-Allegheny), the Democratic chair of the House Liquor Control Committee, released a statement Wednesday saying that Corbett’s plans “just don’t add up.” Costa said he is currently developing his own plan to “modernize Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws while saving jobs and maintaining responsible control.”
“The governor’s proposal has nothing to do with the top priorities of Pennsylvania,” said Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center, a Harrisburg think tank. “Voters aren’t clamoring for this — they want jobs, they want unemployment to go down, they want more funding for education and infrastructure.”
Herzenberg also called the allotment of privatization revenue to public education an “accounting gimmick.”
“The issue of whether you earmark some funds from the wine and spirits industry to schools is a totally separate issue from whether you privatize,” he said.
Herzenberg did acknowledge, however, that Corbett’s proposal would likely lead to a significant increase in the number of liquor stores across the state.
This could have an especially apparent impact on urban areas like West Philadelphia, said Charlie Gerow, a spokesperson for the grassroots Coalition to End the Liquor Monopoly. Since the liquor store at 41st and Market streets closed in January 2012, Penn students have had to travel farther off campus to purchase alcohol.
“We think that a liquor privatization proposal like this really gets at what consumers want,” said Katrina Currie, senior policy analyst and director of government affairs at the Commonwealth Foundation, another Harrisburg think tank. “We believe this push will be unstoppable, that it will go further than any of the other privatization proposals we’ve seen in the past.”
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