House approves bill to sell state's liquor wholesale system

House Republicans on Tuesday pushed ahead a set of changes to how alcohol is sold in the state, moving to privatize wholesale wine and spirits sales and expand the retail outlets where booze is available.

Lawmakers voted 105-84 in favor of the wholesale divestment proposal, sending it with other proposals to the Senate for its consideration.

The House voted to allow more grocery stores to seek permits to sell wine, no longer restricting the permits to stores with seating capacity, and retailers would be able to buy wine from brokers in the private sector.

"Every day that passes that we're not able to continue to update our antiquated liquor systems is another day of missed opportunities," said Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

Rep. Joe Markosek, a Democrat from Allegheny County, said the change would help businesses at the expense of taxpayers, as state stores would have to compete with groceries that can focus on just the most popular varieties.

"If there ever was a template on how to crash a business and hurt taxpayers, this is it," Markosek said.

Representatives also approved letting restaurant and hotel licensees sell up to 3 liters (almost 1 gallon) of takeout liquor per customer.

Another measure would allow privately owned retail liquor stores, an expansion designed to fill gaps in the state that are not adequately served by the 600 stores of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Markosek, the ranking Democrat on Appropriations, said new fees collected under the wholesale divestment bill would be less than the liquor system currently provides to state coffers. He also warned that driving the system out of business would put about 5,000 people out of work and add to the state pension system's debt.

Supporters said the state-store workers would find jobs in the private stores that would be succeed them.

"This is not a shiny new asset," said Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland. "This is an asset that's old and tired and needs to be retired."