Masser backs liquor plan; Gordner: Devil's in details
State Rep. Kurt Masser leaves little doubt he supports state government getting out of the booze business.
"State government should not be any kind of food business," said Masser, R-107, who knows a bit about that
industry as long-time owner of the Wayside Inn Sports Bar and Grill, one of his family's Shamokin-area food establishments. "Government should only provide core services to the people."
He hopes to influence the historic change as a member of the House Liquor Control Committee, which will be involved in crafting legislation later this year.
Fellow Republican and state Sen. John Gordner, R-27, meanwhile, is reserving judgment until he sees a proposal in writing. He notes there is a reason privatization got nowhere in attempts by past governors, Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge.
"The devil's in the details," he said.
Under Gov. Tom Corbett's plan, announced Jan. 30, state liquor stores would be privatized and licenses for 1,200 stand-alone wine and spirits stores - twice what exists now - would be auctioned throughout the state. The proposal would also allow beer and wine to be sold at grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores, and beer distributors, who only sell beer by the case now, could obtain an enhanced license that allows them to sell beer in smaller quantities.
Among Gordner's concerns is 24-hour availability of booze.
"I, for one, do not want people to have access to spirits or hard liquor 24/7, 365 days a year," he said. "I don't want to see Wal-Mart selling grain alcohol at 3 a.m."
Also, he said one of the benefits of the state system is the even geographic distribution of stores. That could change if the state sells licenses to the highest bidders.
"You know that Bloomsburg, Selinsgrove and Lewisburg will get them," because they are college towns, he said. "There is no assurance there will be one in the Shamokin-Mount Carmel area unless either a Wal-Mart, Weis or Giant get one."
Corbett's proposal does call for every county to be allocated at least as many wine and liquor stores as it now has, officials have said, but that doesn't mean they'd be spread out in each county.
Masser also noted concern among smaller beer distributors. They could bid for liquor licenses and become the only places to get wine, beer and liquor, but they will have to go up against large grocery chains and big-box stores who will also bid, then also compete against the lower prices those stores would likely offer.
"These are people that some have been in business for many years, and have followed the rules to the letter, and now there is a proposal to change those rules midstream," he said about distributors. "As a member of the state House Liquor Control Committee, we will be looking very closely into that."
No matter the challenges, Masser and Gordner acknowledge the public support for a change. In a recent poll conducted by the Commonwealth Foundation, a pro-free-market organization, three out of five Pennsylvanian voters support privatizing the 80-year-old state store system, with more than 41 percent strongly favoring the measure.
"An overwhelming amount of the population wanted something like this," Masser said.
"I have some issues, but I know the public wants us to do something," said Gordner.
Lottery: 'Bad idea'
Gordner is much more matter-of-fact with his opinion on Corbett's plan to privatize operation of the state Lottery.
"It's a bad idea," Gordner said, politics not standing in the way of his criticism of a fellow Republican's idea. "When the governor's executive team came to meet with me, I told them I would be opposed."
New Attorney General Kathleen Kane is also opposed, and announced last week she had rejected a contract Corbett had arranged with British firm Camelot to take over the Lottery. The governor is weighing his legal options while the terms of the proposed contract have been extended until Friday.
"Not one of my constituents has commented to me that they want to see it privatized," Gordner said. "The Pennsylvania Lottery has been in operation for over 40 years, operates extremely well, is coming off a year with record profits, and is being run by a good administration. Why does it need to be privatized?"
Masser said his primary concern is that the Lottery continues to fund programs for older Pennsylvanians, including shared rides and prescription medication needs.
"We have to make sure we take care of seniors, that we have the money to meet their needs," he said. "Also, I would have rather seen a Pennsylvania company take it over if the state wanted out of the lottery business."