Key senator pushing beer & wine in grocery stores

Beer and wine could be coming to a grocery store shelf near you, which is an intoxicating thought to store owners like Scott Karns, who has eight midstate locations.

“Beer and wine is a big part of the sales in grocery stores all over the United States,” Karns said. “Pennsylvania is way behind on this.”

Senator Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks/Montgomery) wants Pennsylvania to catch up. He’s working on a bill that would put beer and wine in grocery stores, let beer distributors sell six packs instead of just cases, and let citizens purchase wine online and ship it directly to their homes.

But it would keep the state in the booze business. It’s called ‘modernization’ not ‘privatization.’

Does he have the 26 required votes in the Senate?

“Not right now,” McIlhinney said. “We’re working on it. We’re close.”

We’re told the concept is a couple votes short and McIlhinney says it’s a tough balancing act between some lawmakers who won’t vote for anything that doesn’t completely get the state out of the booze business.

“And the other side saying, ‘it’s too much alcohol. I don’t want unlimited licenses on every corner. It’s a controlled substance. We shouldn’t just be treating it like bread.’ Every time you move that vote or that bill in one direction, you lose people on the other ends of it,” McIlhinney said.

Yellow-shirted state store workers are ever-present at the Capitol these days lobbying against wine in grocery stores.

“It’s gonna ruin good family sustaining jobs,” said John Rzodkiewicz, of UFCW Local 23. “We don’t apologize for that. We are a union.”

David Ozgo prefers a suit, and he too made the rounds at the Capitol trying to woo lawmakers to his point of view. Ozgo is an economist with the DC-based Distilled Spirits Council.

“Bourbon, scotch, rum vodka cognac, brandy, those are all distilled spirits,” Ozgo explains.

Ozgo’s message to lawmakers: if you’re gonna put wine in grocery stores, don’t forget the liquor.

“If you’re going to privatize, you need to privatize wine and spirits as well as the wholesale function or you don’t do it at all,” he said. “If you’re going to do it, do it right.”

Ozgo insists that letting grocery stores sell wine and not liquor will reduce sales of spirits and put fewer dollars in state coffers. He’s arguing for either the status quo or complete privatization.

Lots of advocates and nay-sayers are trying to get the ear of lawmakers on this issue and every time a legislator proposes a tweak that appeases one group it becomes a deal-killer for a different group. Perhaps finding a palatable bill is like a good cocktail requiring a pinch of this and a dash of that. At the moment no proposal seems tasty enough to get the required votes in the house and senate.

But Karns knows he’s as close as he’s ever been.

“Do I think it’s going to happen? I do think it’s going to happen. I just don’t know if it’s gonna happen right now.” Karns added with a hearty laugh, “I’ve been thinking it’s going to happen for the past 20 years.”

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