Union president having 'crisis of confidence' over governor's signing of Pa. liquor modernization bill

By Karen Kidd | Jun 17, 2016

HARRISBURG – A union local president said he was perplexed that Pennsylvania's governor earlier this month signed a Republican-sponsored liquor reform bill to allow beer and wine sales in state-licensed grocery stores, restaurants and hotels into law.

United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1776 President Wendell W. Young IV also said during a Pennsylvania Record telephone interview that he's studying the new legislation and is willing to work with it, if possible.

"I have to admit, I'm having a crisis of confidence," Young said. "But if the governor says this can be worked with, then I have to believe him."

The union plans to host a teletown hall for its Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) members at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 16, according to a press release issued by the union shortly after Gov. Tom Wolf signed the new legislation this week.

Wolf's signature followed quickly on the Pennsylvania House vote of 157-31 in favor of HB 1690 on June 7. The law is set to go into effect in August.

The legislation had 33 sponsors, all of them Republican, led by Mike Turzai, the House Speaker with tea party leanings who represents Allegheny County. Neither Turzai nor House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-District 62) returned requests for comment from the Pennsylvania Record. 

The reform bill was a long time in coming in large part because it kept changing, Young said, referring to how much the then-proposed legislation was altered as it passed between the state House and Senate. Similar legislation was passed twice by the House last year.

"The original architects of this bill, who watched it get gutted in the Senate, are now saying that this is a bad bill," Young said. "You know it's a bad bill when it's original writers say it's a bad bill."

By contrast, Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R-District 10), who also did not respond to Pennsylvania Record, appears quite happy with the new law.

“As the author of the final version of this bill, I am extremely grateful that all sides were able to set aside partisanship and unite around a plan that truly puts the consumers first,” McIlhinney was quoted as part of the govenor's office's blog post on June 8.

“I would also like to thank the Governor for reaching a compromise that puts the citizens of Pennsylvania ahead of politics. The reforms included in this bill are measures that consumers have requested for years, and I appreciate the fact that we were able to reach a compromise that responds to the most pressing concerns we hear from community residents.”

Wolf announced the day following the House vote that he would sign the legislation. The governor's blog on  June 10 referred to the governor's signing of the compromise liquor modernization bill "the most significant step the commonwealth has taken to reform our liquor system in 80 years." 

"Governor Wolf’s goal has always been to modernize the sale of liquor and beer in Pennsylvania and this reform package will finally bring Pennsylvania’s wine and spirits system into the 21st century," the blog entry said. "This bill will allow grocery stores that currently sell beer to sell up to four bottles of wine, will permit restaurants and hotels to sell up to four bottles of wine for take-out, and removes Sunday restrictions and state-mandated holidays."

Now that it's a law, the PLCB will do what it takes to be ready by August, Director of External Affairs and Media Contact Elizabeth Brassell said during a Pennsylvania Record telephone interview.

"This is going to be a monumental undertaking," Brassell said, adding the new law will need to be carefully studied. "But we're going to take the time to do it right. We can't speak to the intent of the bill. The task in front of us is to figure out what this law means, what the changes are, and how to properly implement it."

Young expressed sympathy for the PLCB as the task before the board is similar to what his union is facing. Both Brassell and Young waived off questions about intended, short-term and long-term consequences that can be expected from the new law.

"It's too soon to say," Young said. "It think it's going to be hard for the PLCB, for anyone, to be too specific right now. I think it's going to be a month, at least."

Depending on how the new legislation plays out, the state is about to suffer in ways it never has before, Young said. In a state that already has strong happy hour laws and a culture that traditionally has favored beer or wine, Pennsylvania has one of the lowest rates of deaths associated with alcohol consumption, Young said.

"Look at any statistics you want to, Pennsylvania does a very good job keeping those harms down," Young said.

Young leveled some very candid observations at the state Republicans who backed and sponsored the new law, which he said may bring with it some unintended harms that he said aren't turning up in much news coverage.

 "What no one is talking about this week, what the Republicans don't want to talk about, are the societal costs that we may be facing," he said.

From what he has studied of the law so far, Young said he fears thousands will be put out of work and state tax payers will be harmed as the PLCB, which generated $584 million last year, may be dismantled. The same tax payers will most keenly feel that lost of revenue, Young said, adding "that lost revenue is going to have to be made up somehow."

Young said Republicans are paying no mind to that in a rush to funnel public moneys into the private sector.

"I think they want to see people put out of work," he said. "They want to see more people subsisting on Wal-Mart wages."

Despite his strongly voiced reservations about the new legislation, Young maintained he's willing to wait and see, especially given the governor's decision to sign it into law.

"I think it's a bad bill," he said. "We've supported the governor, we're going to keep supporting the governor, but it's still a bad bill."

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