Wine, spirits and the brewing battle over ending state stores

Manayunk takes its name from the native Lenape word for river or “place to drink.”

It is still known as a place to drink, but in a distinctly more recreational way.

However, the issue of where consumers can buy the alcohol they drink at home is causing some consternation in the neighborhood, as in the rest of Northwest Philadelphia and the rest of the state.

Some consumers favor the idea, but some local politicians and the union that represents state store workers are opposed.

United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1776, is dead set against a proposal spearheaded by House Republican Majority Leader Mike Turzai that would get state government out of the liquor business.

Local 1776 has about 2,400 members working in wine and spirits stores.

Its president, Wendell W. Young IV, laments that he “does not have Turzai’s ear at all.”

He wants to meet with or debate him in order to convince Turzai and the public that privatization will result in lost jobs that would not likely be replaced by the private sector.

Under Turzai’s plan, the state would close 621 state stores and auction off 1,250 retail franchises to the highest private bidders. It would also revise the tax structure on wine and spirits.  The bill would not affect the beer sales system, under which cases have to be bought from wholesalers, with no beer sales at supermarkets.

Young claims this privatized system would trade high state revenues and relatively low statewide alcohol consumption, especially among underage youths, for job losses, without providing better product selections and prices.

Last year, wine and spirits stores generated nearly $482 million for the State Treasury from about $1.9 billion in sales, according to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which does not take a position on the privatization issue. The PLCB also gave close to $1 million to fight underage and binge drinking in 2009 to 2010.

In Northwest Philadelphia, state Sen. Vincent Hughes is against Turzai’s bill, which in a statement he called “an extremely bad idea.” He also expressed concern about losing state revenue and “family-sustaining jobs.”

State Rep. Pamela DeLissio, a Democrat whose 194th District covers Manayunk and much of Roxborough, said she wants to see a business case made for the move before “unwinding 70 years of history.”

DeLissio is cautious about forecasts that predict different effects on age verification practices or social problems, but is also concerned about protecting existing jobs and revenues.

“Why liquidate an asset that produces an acceptable amount of revenue?” she asked.

With Republicans holding majorities in the State House and Senate, plus the governorship, some believe this is the moment for privatization, but it is not so simple.  Because some Republicans see the state stores as a protection against alcoholism and its devastating impact on families, the party has always been divided on privatization. 

Todd Stephens, a Republican representative from Montgomery County, said that like many in his party he believes “the private sector does most things better than government.”

However, he’s undecided on Turzai’s bill, wanting to see more information about how it would affect state revenues.  

Ellie Schmidt, a union shop steward in Roxborough, is pretty certain how privatization would affect her household revenues, and she’s worried.  

She is proud that she could buy a home as a clerk in a wine and spirits store, but worries she could lose it along with her job.

“I could be homeless,” explained the mother of four. “I bought a house two months ago and my husband is disabled.”

Even if she were to get a new job with a private store, she fears that she would not get the same benefits and salary.

Consumers, however, appear less incensed than unionized clerks at the idea. Stephens said he has not heard his constituents speak much about it since last year’s election campaign and DeLissio has received only one email on the issue.

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