It’s last call — for now for to-go cocktails, as House and Senate jockey over bill

By: - June 15, 2021 4:53 pm

State Sen. Mike Regan, R-York. (Image courtesy of Pennsylvania Senate)

Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster declaration is over, and to-go cocktails are ending with it — at least until lawmakers approve a bill that lets sales continue.

In a 6-5 vote, the Senate Law and Justice Committee advanced a proposal on Tuesday that would make to-go beverages a permanent fixture in Pennsylvania.

But an amendment to include canned cocktails in the legislation means that it will have to be sent back to the House, pending approval from the Senate. And even if the bill survives a vote in both chambers, Wolf will not support the amendment. 

“The administration remains hopeful that the Legislature will send a clean bill to his desk instead of insisting on unrelated language that provides no relief to this important industry as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic,” a spokesperson for the governor told the Capital-Star.

To-go cocktails were initially permitted in May 2020 as a temporary allowance to help generate revenue for bars, restaurants, and taverns operating under strict mitigation guidelines. The legislation also allowed for expanded outdoor seating, but these lifelines ended with the termination of the emergency declaration. 

Since the May 18 election, there’s been debate over when the amendments take effect. Some lawmakers argued that they could terminate the order immediately, while others said the Legislature had to wait until results were certified by the Department of State, which occurred Tuesday.

“While the mitigation has been lifted, it will take months for our industry to fully recover, so these tools continue to be valuable to business operations,” John Longstreet, president and chief executive officer for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said. “However, despite our outreach to emphasize the continued need, these tools are now no longer available because of the decisions made in Harrisburg.”

He added: “For 15 months, the Legislature has said they support our industry, and it had the opportunity to put those words into action. Instead, the members of the Senate Law and Justice Committee opted not to act in a meaningful way to support the industry, and we’re left asking why.”

Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, who chairs the committee, has a final say on what state liquor law legislation reaches the upper chamber. 

Regan’s chief-of-staff Bruce McLanahan told the Capital-Star that the senator wasn’t “willing to only do half the job” without addressing other issues facing restaurants. 

But Wendell Young, president of UFCW Local 1776, the union that represents workers in the state liquor store system, told the Capital-Star that Regan wanted to amend the bill to include canned cocktails.

Under current law, only the state liquor store system can sell these canned drinks, also called “ready-to-drink” beverages. Lawmakers have contested changes to the state liquor law, saying potential chance could cut into state revenue from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and threaten UFCW jobs in the system.

In January, Regan asked colleagues to support a stand-alone bill that would allow the private sale of canned cocktails, which are drinks with an alcohol base that contain at least one non-alcoholic component.

In April, the Senate Law and Justice Committee and House Liquor Control Committee met to hear testimony from the state liquor board and industry stakeholders to discuss the potential expansion of canned cocktail sales.

And last week, Regan had a fundraiser at Frank Sourbeer’s house. 

Sourbeer co-chaired Regan’s first Senate campaign, and according to a Capital-Star analysis of campaign finance records, he’s given the senator $39,472 in donations since 2016. 

He’s also president of Wilsbach Distributors, a Harrisburg-area beer distributor, and according to Cumberland County marriage records, Sourbeer is Regan’s brother-in-law, who would stand to benefit from the private sales of canned cocktails.

Despite the familial relationship, McLanahan told the Capital-Star that Regan “has not had any substantive conversations with Frank Sourbeer on this issue.” After Tuesday’s committee vote, he said the legislation aims to address consumer confusion by expanding the market.

The amendment also extends outdoor dining, temporarily removes restrictions on off-premise catering permits, and waives fees and allows licensees an additional year of safekeeping. The change also lets a liquor license holder sell their stock of liquor and wine to another holder.

Sen. Jim Brewster, of Allegheny County, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said the majority of the amendment makes sense but added the canned cocktail portion requires more discussion.

“It’s really not so much the RTDs as they exist today. I’m more concerned about any new product that comes down the line,” Brewster said, adding that it could “eat into” the liquor control board revenue.

“The profit that’s made, it’s one of the few line items in the budget where employees pay for their own, basically, existence. They not only get tax revenue, but they also bring in profit, and the taxpayers are relying on us to help manage that process,” Brewster said. 

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