Plan to end Pennsylvania’s state-run liquor store monopoly gets some opposition in Philadelphia

Inside one of Pennsylvania's state-run Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores. (Nathaniel Hamilton for WHYY)

Inside one of Pennsylvania's state-run Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores. (Nathaniel Hamilton for WHYY)

An effort to eliminate Pennsylvania’s state-run liquor monopoly through a constitutional amendment is already running into roadblocks, even before the question is on the ballot.

State Rep. Natalie Mihalek, a Republican from Allegheny County, is preparing a constitutional amendment to privatize the state’s liquor system. Her belief is that the convenience of private operation of liquor sales far outweighs the state monopoly that has been the way Pennsylvania has handled liquor sales for decades.

Pennsylvania is one of only two states that has a state-run liquor system and there have been numerous attempts to change that, including as recently as 2015 when a bill made it to Governor Tom Wolf’s desk before being rejected.

State Senators Anthony Williams and Tina Tartaglione, both Democrats, went to a liquor store in Philadelphia’s Gray’s Ferry neighborhood Tuesday morning to speak out against the proposal along with members of the union that represents the workers in the facilities, who number about 5,000 statewide.

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Senator Williams said the change could put thousands of people out of good-paying jobs with benefits and pensions, and he plans to fight the proposal. He questioned the reasons for ending the liquor monopoly when it returned over $800 million in profits in the past fiscal year to the state.

“There’s not one single department or unit of government that has such a prosperous return on investment, not one,” Williams said. “It hires and employs over 5,000 Pennsylvanians that receive pensions, benefits, and the privilege of their salary being protected.”

Mihalek said the goal of her constitutional amendment is to let the people of the state decide what is best for them. She refuted the $800 million number, saying the majority of the money comes from sales tax and a liquor tax that would not change if the sales were transferred to private operators. It’s more like $200 million, said Mihalek, which she believes will be made up from the taxes on increased sales from more stores that would arise from private ownership.

Denise Brown is a single mother who put her son through college working in state liquor stores in the Philadelphia region. She joined Williams and spoke out about the importance of the security that a union job brings. She said she’s afraid if the government ends the Liquor Control Board monopoly on sales, she and many of her co-workers would never be able to find a similar job with equal wages and benefits.

Senator Tartaglione said the state-run liquor stores give Pennsylvania more control to prevent underage liquor sales and have stores even in areas that lose money to provide a service to the public. She said that’s something that would never happen if private enterprises ran the operation. She says the constitutional amendment is a move by Republicans trying to circumvent the legislature’s ability to do their job by taking the question directly to the voters.

Wendell Young IV is the head of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents liquor store employees. He said the state shouldn’t abolish a program that has so many people in good-paying jobs and that makes a big profit.

He said if a business in Pennsylvania was preparing to cut 5,000 jobs, there would be state subsidies provided to keep those employees working. He called the move “disrespectful to the voters of Pennsylvania.”

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Young believes if the constitutional amendment were to pass it would create chaos, because the change would have to be completed in 18 months. Mihalek said previous incarnations of legislation could be used as a guide to make for a smooth transition and with a timetable established, people would be able to work toward the change with a definitive deadline.

In order for the constitutional amendment to be approved, the State House and Senate would have to approve the change in two successive sessions. Only then would it go to the voters for a final decision.

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