Erie lawmaker tells liquor regulators they need to spruce up rundown states stores in poor Pa. cities

    A state liquor store front in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison).

    The state board that controls alcohol sales in Pennsylvania touted its plans to renovate more liquor stores this year, leading one state lawmaker on Tuesday to decry what he saw as a disparity between state-run stores in poor urban areas and affluent suburbs. 

    State Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, called on the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to fix up liquor stores in the city of Erie, which he said looked like “pieces of crap” compared to “shiny new” stores in wealthy suburbs.

    “If you want to weigh in on why Erie has three liquor stores and they’re all run down, feel free,” Laughlin challenged the board members Tuesday, when they appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee to defend their $624 million proposed budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.  

    The liquor control board, which owns all the liquor stores in the state, had remodeled more than 300 of its 600-plus locations across Pennsylvania as of July 2019, according to testimony it submitted to the committee.

    But Laughlin suggested that the board allowed its urban locations to languish while it renovated locations in suburbs and affluent neighborhoods.    

    He pointed out that his district includes the one of the poorest zip codes in the nation, and that its state-run liquor store is small, unkempt and offers a limited inventory.   

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    “These people deserve better than that,” Laughlin said. 

    The board’s chairman, Tim Holden, apologized to Laughlin for not remodeling the stores in Erie, and said the liquor authority plans to complete its years-long remodeling spree in the next 18 months. 

    Executive director Charlie Mooney pledged to send staffers to Erie in the coming weeks to scope out the locations. 

    Laughlin said he appreciated the gesture. But he also remarked to the board that it should examine its priorities as state agencies clamor for money to improve aging infrastructure. 

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    When schools across Pennsylvania are struggling to remediate toxic lead and asbestos, capital improvements for the liquor authority “are going to fall to the bottom for me” as Pennsylvania appropriators prioritize spending for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Laughlin said.

    The board’s proposed budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year represents a 5.5 percent increase from its current, approved spending plan, which expires on June 30. 

    The increase will cover growing operating costs that come from freight expenses, store leases and credit and debit card transaction fees, according to Holden’s testimony.

    Unlike other state agencies, the board does not receive an annual appropriation from the state’s general fund. It supports its own operations with revenue from liquor sales, which reached a record $2.67 billion in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, the testimony states. 

    The agency also contributes revenue to the state’s general fund, and disbursed a total of $769.9 million to state and local government agencies in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.