Pennsylvania’s Alcohol Sale Privatization Debate: What Does It Mean for Retail Beer and Wine Sellers?

Pennsylvania’s state-run stores could be on the verge of losing their decades-old monopoly on wine and liquor sales. On December 13, 2011, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ Liquor Control Committee voted 15-10 to approve an amended version of Pennsylvania House Bill 11, (“Pa. H.B. 11”), which would allow the state’s 1,200 beer retailers to sell wine to the public, in competition with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s (“PLCB”) 620 state-run stores. Notably, large supermarket chains within the state stand to gain an enormous benefit from the proposed law, which would allow for the first time in-store wine sales, as well as limited in-store tasting events. The proposed legislation now sits before the full House, awaiting floor debate, additional amendments, and a possible vote. The process could begin as early as this month.

Under the amended proposed law, a license to sell wine, called an “enhanced distributor’s license,” would be available to any “holder of a distributor license” – i.e., an entity currently selling beer in the state – after payment of a “conversion fee” of $50,000. In addition, an enhanced distributor would be required to pay an annual $15,000 renewal fee. The enhanced distributor licenses would be subject to the same population-tied cap as the current distributor licenses. Presently, the number of distribution licenses available for the retail sale of beer is limited to one license for every 3,000 inhabitants in any county, exclusive of licenses granted to certain public venues and other venues specifically identified by the Legislature.

The original version of Pa. H.B. 11 sponsored by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai and supported by Gov. Tom Corbett, would have gone even farther in breaking up the state-run monopoly. The original bill called for the complete privatization of all retail and wholesale wine and liquor sales in the state by closing and selling all state-run stores. A study commissioned by the bill’s proponents indicated that the sales could generate between $1.3 and $1.9 billion up front, with an additional $400 million in annual revenues thereafter. Following the sale of state-run stores, there would be a public auction of 1,250 retail licenses to sell beer, wine, and liquor to the highest bidders. Because the current version of the bill keeps the state-run stores open, the re-employment provisions contained in the first draft of the bill that were designed to assist displaced PLCB employees find new employment have been deleted in the amended bill.

With the Governor and many Republican legislators pushing for full privatization, further amendments or even reintroduction of some original proposals might be likely before a final version of the new law is ready for a vote. In any event, retail licensees large and small should be keeping a close eye as Pa. H.B. 11 moves through the law-making process. Whether legislators ultimately agree to proceed with the current public-private competition plan or something closer to full privatization, Pennsylvania’s retail sellers and its citizens seem poised for big changes.