Gov. Tom Corbett's push to liberalize Pennsylvania's beer, wine and liquor laws drew broad criticism from anti-addiction groups during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday, and a key state senator suggested that any sale of private alcohol licenses won't deliver the kind of windfall Corbett has touted.
The hearing in front of the Senate Law and Justice Committee was the first for senators on the subject as Corbett, a Republican, applies heavy pressure to get a bill to his desk by June 30, when the Legislature wraps up business for the summer.
But the testimony was not flattering to the idea or a bill that passed the House in March that would create 1,200 new private wine and liquor store licenses and allow thousands of bars, restaurants and grocery stores to begin selling bottles of wine.
"We have issues in this commonwealth considerably more important than how convenient or inconvenient it is to buy a bottle of vodka,'' David Bender of the Lancaster-based anti-addiction group Compass Mark told senators. "While bridges crumble into ruin and families tumble into bankruptcy, why do we pave the legislative way for children to stumble into addiction?''
Bender told senators that the House bill is a money loser for taxpayers _ possibly $444 million a year _ if control of wine and liquor sales shifts from state government to private store operators. He also criticized the Corbett administration for lacking a public 10-year projection of the bill's financial impact on the state.
"No business owner worth his salt would make a decision of this magnitude without that information,'' Bender said. "The citizen owners of this asset should expect the same.''
Bender said he expects the consumption of alcohol to increase if it is more available, although he would not expect a dramatic spike. Representatives of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania also oppose the idea of alcohol being more widely available.
In any case, the House bill is dead on arrival in the Senate and will undergo broad changes in that chamber. The committee's chairman, Sen. Charles McIlhinney, R-Bucks, also attacked part of Corbett's justification for selling private wine and liquor store licenses, the idea that a windfall of $1 billion or more would result.
"If this is about a money maker, I don't think that's really where we should be going with it,'' McIlhinney told reporters after the hearing. "If we're going to do privatization and try to make more convenience out there, it shouldn't be some way to generate a billion dollars and then give it away.''
McIlhinney said he plans two more hearings before he drafts a plan for a committee vote, possibly in mid-June.
He has said he is leaning toward a plan that would allow the state's approximately 12,000 existing private beer licensees _ eateries, bars and distributors, as well as supermarkets or convenience stores with a restaurant-style beer license _ to buy licenses to sell wine and liquor.
Some could switch entirely to wine and liquor or stock none at all, while it would be up to the private market to put the state-controlled liquor stores out of business through competition.
McIlhinney also has suggested that he would be willing to relax the restaurant-style seating, food and space requirements that supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers must obey if they want to sell alcoholic beverages.
He and other top Republicans who control the Senate have complained that they are under the gun to produce legislation in three months on a complicated topic. But they nonetheless have said they will try as Corbett and business groups, including the National Federation of Independent Business, press for action.