Commentary

The latest push for liquor privatization is a glass half-empty. Here’s why | Opinion

We agree that Pa. should get out of the state-run booze business. But the latest proposal needs some work

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

By Tom Tyler

The debate has started. Should Pennsylvania get out of the business of selling liquor, essentially going with private wholesalers and retailers?

As the statewide political voice for family-owned taverns, bars, and licensed restaurants, it has raised a question within our Membership. What would the new liquor world look like in Pennsylvania if this newest push were to be successful?

For these small business establishments, which supply tens of thousands of jobs supporting our state and local economies, it’s a question that seems to have more questions than answers.  

The state’s liquor business is a web that mixes sales, codes, and politics. When you make change in one area, it impacts others. 

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In philosophy the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association agrees the state should not serve as a wholesaler or retailer of liquor. We also realize there are problems within the state’s liquor system that need to be fixed, particularly antiquated liquor codes. 

Unfortunately, the current privatization bill (HB2272), sponsored by Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny,  doesn’t look to fix outdated liquor codes. It doesn’t even promise family-owned establishments that they’ll be better off when purchasing their liquor to run their businesses. 

For the taverns, bars and licensed restaurants we represent, supporting Mihalek’s bill is like taking a leap of faith, not knowing if our Members will be protected from unintended consequences. As such, we can’t take a position on the legislation, but we can offer suggestions to improve it.  

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Let’s realize that because of Pennsylvania’s very complicated liquor business, it is critical that if the state exits the liquor sales business that it is does so in a way to show its support of small business establishments. Our mom-and-pop taverns, bars, and licensed restaurants should not have to worry that they’ll be destroyed. Meaningful protections and liquor code changes are necessary.  

With politics involved in this complicated business, there is a legitimate concern that large, well-funded players, including those from out-of-state, will have an advantage in a new liquor world. Major players would view legislative approval of the privatization bill as an opportunity to rework the liquor code, tilting it in their favor.

It’s not far-fetched to believe that Mihalek’s bill, as it stands today, could set off a series of political actions impacting all phases of liquor control, licensing, and enforcement.  

We’d rather see the glass half full by improving upon the privatization bill, but with the potential for unintended consequences it looks half empty. 

Tom Tyler is the president of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association (PLBTA). Mr. Tyler is also the owner of McStew’s Irish Sports Pub in Bucks County.

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