Battle Lines Being Drawn Over Liquor Privatization

The details of the plan may be new, but the arguments for and against liquor privatization are perennially similar.  “This is an agency that makes money, that continues to make more money every year,” UFCW Local 1776 President Wendell Young IV said while questioning the logic behind dismantling the state store system. 

The UFCW, which represents 3,500 employees at Pennsylvania’s wine & spirits shops, has been on the front lines of the privatization battle for years.  This time around, Young says the governor’s plan would not only jeopardize thousands of family-sustaining jobs, but it would drastically increase the number of alcohol outlets.  “If you think about what he proposed… you could wind up with 20 – 30,000 or more outlets in Pennsylvania selling wine or spirits.” 

As Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny) did on the Senate floor, Wednesday, Young likens the Corbett plan to the “Wild West” of alcohol sales.    

The expansion of alcohol outlets has some worried about the effects of increased consumption.  “There is a large body of research that shows a relationship between increases in consumption and a whole host of alcohol-related problems,” says Deb Beck, President of the Drug & Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania.  “I don’t think one needs a lot of research to get that.”

Beck says a little inconvenience is a small price to pay, noting that Pennsylvania already has unmet needs when it comes to drug & alcohol treatment programs. 

While it may not be enough to assuage the concerns of privatization critics, Governor Tom Corbett’s plan would address both issues: employees and increased outlets. 

The plan calls for tax credits for business that employ displaced Liquor Control Board employees, education and civil service credits, as well as a new committee to help affected workers find re-employment. 

As for the increased number of alcohol retailers, the governor’s plan tries to balance it with increased enforcement measures.  They include stiffer penalties for selling booze to underage or visibly drunk persons, a requirement that new alcohol retailers must use ID scanners and a 75% increase in funding for treatment programs.    

If Corbett succeeds it would leave Utah as the only state to maintain complete control over its liquor system – from distribution to retail.

Governor Corbett Lays Out Liquor Privatization Plan

Governor Tom Corbett wants to transition Pennsylvania out of the liquor business over a four year period and use the proceeds for education.    The privatization plan would change the distribution of liquor from   the wholesale to retail levels.

During the phase in, the governor expects the plan to generate one billion dollars, which would be used to create the Passport to Learning Block Grant Program for public education.

Governor Corbett says he does not simply want to trim the system a little here or there.  He says if we are to gain the advantages of greater consumer choice and greater consumer convenience, we should not do it half way.

The Governor added that the plan includes tax credits for businesses that employ separated LCB workers, educational credits, civil service credits and other efforts to help displaced employees.

The Governor’s plan would double the current number of wine and spirits stores to 1200. It would require new alcohol retailers, such as wine and spirits stores, grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores to use an ID scanner device before they can sell alcohol. Fines would be increased for selling to minors and visibly intoxicated persons. The additional money from license surcharges and increased fines would be designated for enforcement efforts.

The Governor also proposes increasing alcohol treatment and prevention efforts.

Governor Corbett released details of the plan surrounded by by a number of state house Republicans.  House majority leader Mike Turzai , whose own  privatization effort fell short,   said  there’s a lot of energy in the house. He said the Governor is doing something historical in taking the lead on the issue.

Environmental Groups Unveil Guidelines for Lawmakers

A coalition of five, statewide environmental groups has created a series of guidelines they want lawmakers to follow this session.  “We’ve outlined five issues we think are likely to appear before the legislature in some fashion during the year, and wanted to give them an early opportunity to understand what it means to be in favor of the environment,” says Conservation Voters of PA Executive Director Josh McNeil.  “Almost every public official will claim to be in support of protecting our environment.  Now they know what that actually means when it comes to voting.” 

The document is called the 2013 Environmental Guidelines for Pennsylvania Legislators

For instance, with action likely on the state’s transportation funding crisis, McNeil stresses the need to include mass transit.  “Public transportation provides incredible economic benefits and reduces significantly the pollution we put out as we move back-and-forth in life,” he says.  “A single busload of passengers saves on carbon and global warming pollution from dozens of cars.” 

Other issues addressed in the guidelines include: funding restorations for state environmental agencies and “green” standards for the state’s capital construction projects, among other things.   

The other four groups to help craft the guidelines are Clean Water Action, PennEnvironment, PennFuture and the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter

They’ll all be watching this session’s legislative activity, and keeping constituents apprised of their lawmakers’ environmental voting record.

Senate Votes to Keep PSU Fine In-state

With a unanimous vote, the state Senate has advanced legislation that would require Penn State’s $60-million dollar fine to be spent here in Pennsylvania.  Currently, up to 75% could be distributed to fund sexual abuse programs in other states

Senator Jake Corman (R-Centre) addressed the chamber before today’s vote:SB187

The first $12-million dollar installment is sitting in an escrow account, and has not been dispersed pending a lawsuit that Corman has filed. 

Governor Tom Corbett has filed his own lawsuit seeking to overturn all of the NCAA sanctions, but he tells us Penn State should still honor the fine by funding sexual abuse prevention programs & victims services within the commonwealth’s borders. 

Corman’s bill (SB 187) would also apply to future governing association fine levied on PA colleges & universities.  The House must take up Corman’s bill before it can be sent to the governor’s desk. 

Meanwhile, as the Senate was voting today, Judge John Cleland issued an order denying Jerry Sandusky’s post-sentencing motions.  The ex-assistant football coach is currently serving 30 – 60-years in prison for the sexual abuse of ten boys.

Natural Gas “Shoppers” Have New Way to Compare Prices

Natural gas customers have had their choice of suppliers for about 14 years, but  many don’t make a switch.  Now, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission   is offering them a new tool to comparison shop.

When the PUC upgraded its web site recently, it created PAGasSwitch.  While pricing information has been available for some time on the Office of Consumer Advocate’s website, this tool is very much like PAPowerSwitch , in that it allows interactive comparisons. It allows customers to see prices, services and incentives from natural gas suppliers.

Denise McCracken of the PUC says only about 12% of natural gas customers have switched recently and they’re hoping the new tool will encourage more of them to “shop” for a natural gas supplier, just like consumers shop for an electricity supplier.

The website is

Scarnati Doesn’t Want Budget Hostages

As the key issues on this spring’s legislative agenda become clearer, the Senate’s top Republican says now is not the time to start linking them together.  “That’s Washington-style politics and we don’t need that,” Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) told reporters who huddled into his conference room at the state capitol. 

Joe Scarnati

Joe Scarnati

Scarnati does not want to see the liquor privatization issue tied to transportation funding.  “I think we’ve talked about it enough,” Scarnati said, discussing the urgency of improving the state’s transportation infrastructure.  “We have a study, we have a report; we have everybody feeling the necessity to get this done.  Delaying it and linking it just really doesn’t do any good for the commonwealth.” 

His comments come as the Corbett administration has also been signaling that the pension reform issue will be tied to the state budget, specifically education funding.  “The issue of cutting public education is a very sensitive issue… and putting an either-or doesn’t make this budget a lot easier to get done.” 

Scarnati believes pensions should be addressed, and that the first step should be passing a bill that enrolls all newly-hired state workers in a 401(k)-style defined contribution retirement plan.  “That’s the tourniquet that stops the bleeding, and that’s a move that we need to make,” he says. 

But Scarnati does not know if the votes exist to reduce the future pension benefits of current state employees.  He’s anxious to see the options that Governor Tom Corbett is expected to lay out along with his budget plan, and believes there’s a willingness to work toward a solution to the public pensions’ $41-billion dollar unfunded liability.

Corbett Struggles in New Quinnipiac Poll

Pennsylvania voters are giving Governor Tom Corbett poor marks half-way through his first term.  Today’s Quinnipiac Poll finds that voters disapprove of the job Corbett is doing by a margin of 42 – 36%.  That’s down from a 40 – 38% approval rating in November’s Quinnipiac Poll.

Pollster Tim Malloy says there’s no strong base of support for Corbett among any income or age group, or in any region of the state.  “It’s halftime in Gov. Tom Corbett’s first term and if he were running a football team instead of a state, he’d fire his offensive coordinator,” Malloy said in a statement.

While 50% of PA voters disapprove of the way Corbett has handled the Penn State scandal over these past 15-months, the poll finds that they do support his lawsuit challenging the NCAA sanctions by a margin of 43 – 37%.

53% of voters say the sanctions – including a four year bowl ban and $60-million dollar fine – were too severe.  13% told pollsters they weren’t severe enough.  Meanwhile, voters do have a favorable opinion of the late Joe Paterno (43 – 29%).

Distracted Drivers Do More than Talk and Text According to AAA Survey

A new AAA survey shows drivers who use their cell phones often may also be engaging in other risky behavior behind the wheel.

Just over half of the drivers who use a cell phone also admitted to sending a text or email behind the wheel. 65% say they speed, 44% drive drowsy and 29% do not use their seat belt according to the survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Jenny Robinson of AAA Mid-Atlantic says more than one in four young drivers admitted checking or updating social media behind the wheel.

Robinson says responding to the phone can become a habit; you hear the phone go off and you want to respond right away.  She says it’s better to put your phone on “silent” when you’re driving, so you don’t have that distraction.  The other option is to consider an app that will send an automatic response while you are driving.

Robinson says using a cell phone behind the wheel can quadruple your crash risk.

A Pennsylvania law that bans texting while driving took effect last March. Robinson says it does take some time to get awareness of new laws and to increase education about the dangers of this behavior.