Two liquor reform bills are in competition for inclusion in the ongoing budget process in Harrisburg.
The first, a priority of House Republican leadership, is said to enhance customer convenience by permitting “cash register reform” that would allow beer and wine sold in grocery and convenience stores to be purchased at normal cash registers instead of separate eatery locations.
According to Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks), the author of the language allowing beer and wine to be sold in grocery stores – and the chairman of the Senate committee with oversight of liquor-related issues – the concept is being looked at as part of an evolving customer convenience policy.
“If it’s something that can make sense for the consumer-convenience side, maybe we can move ahead, but I don’t see it as a real sea change in any kind of privatization movement at this point in time,” he said.
“I want to hear from all the opponents as well, because I want them to make their case to me as to why it would be damaging to them, but...if it’s something that can make the convenience a little easier for the consumer, I tend to be in favor of that. But let’s see what the opponents have to say and whether there’s a final decision with regard to this package.”
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) noted Monday that while the cash register reform provision is something negotiated with the House, it is not necessarily a revenue generator.
“I don’t know how” it would raise revenue,” he acknowledged, “but that’s what I agreed to.”
Meanwhile, not all House Republicans are on board with the plan and some are openly asking questions about whether making another change for customer convenience is appropriate so soon after passing the most comprehensive liquor reform measures in decades just last session.
“I have questions about what the changes would be, because I recall sitting (here) discussing different privatization bills. We had some concerns about the integrity at the cash register for checking underage and making sure we weren’t having anyone with alcohol going through self-checkout,” said Rep. Marguerite Quinn (R-Bucks). “I’m really just more curious to see what the language is. Obviously, I’d like to think we are all concerned about underage (sales), but I’m also curious about stores that implemented and put in a separate cash register, put in seating, put the whole restaurant concept in, I was just looking into what the changes would mean if someone put $100,000 into their store to achieve that and now we’re changing that a few years later.”
In another corner of the Capitol, lawmakers advanced legislation Monday evening that took the step of amending and advancing legislation aimed at cracking down on so-called stop-and-go alcohol sales locations, making it more difficult for these establishments to sell alcohol in violation of the state’s liquor laws.
These de facto bars technically operate within the law by holding the appropriate restaurant license to serve alcohol. The establishments are nicknamed “stop-and-go” due to their status appearing as a convenience store or deli that also sells beer and liquor – sometimes in quantities as low as a single shot – oftentimes consumed on premises or immediately outside the store.
They are widely known to operate on the fringes of the law or blatantly outside of it and have also been accused of violating areas of state law in terms of tobacco sales and alcohol and tobacco sales to minors.
The legislation advanced from committee was the product of a hearing held by the committee in September and a personal visit from committee Majority Chairman Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks) to Philadelphia arranged by Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia), Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia), and Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) to see these establishments in action.
“When Sen. Street got me to go down there, I couldn’t quite visualize what he was talking about,” he said. “The first thing I saw is that this would not be allowed in my district, so they shouldn’t have to put up with it in their district either. So, that caused me to take a little swifter action.”
The proposal, now awaiting action by the full Senate before it can return to the House for concurrence, creates an administrative process to allow the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to suspend the liquor license of any establishment that does not meet a licensing requirement, particularly relating to seating or square footage – laws that stop-and-gos frequently break.
More specifically, the legislation would allow a complaint by a state or city government entity to the LCB regarding a potential violation to trigger an inspection by the board that could lead to an immediate administrative suspension of a store’s liquor license that would remain in effect until the deficiency is corrected.
“This gives (the board) just a little bit more of an ability to be more rapid about the crackdown on this,” Sen. McIlhinney said Monday.
Sen. Williams, who authored the amendment encompassing the new proposal, said the bill now making its way through the legislature is a product of bipartisan work that will benefit the people of Philadelphia – the city most plagued by stop-and-gos – for years to come.
“This actually gives us an opportunity to leverage bad operators and to do something that will make a difference for a lot of people in Pennsylvania for a long time,” he said.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg Bureau Chief of The PLS Reporter, a news website dedicated to covering Pennsylvania’s government.