What’s holding up Harrisburg lawmakers from making to-go cocktails permanent?

By: and - June 11, 2021 10:01 am

(*This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, 6/11/2021, to note that Frank Sourbeer co-chaired Sen. Mike Regan’s first Senate campaign.)

Pennsylvania lawmakers’ vote to cut off Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 declaration this week claimed an unexpected casualty: to-go cocktails.

Since May 2020, state law has temporarily allowed Pennsylvanians to get take out Bloody Marys with their Sunday brunch or a Moscow Mule with their power lunch.

But that allowance was temporary and tied to the existence of the COVID-19 state of emergency, Melissa Bova, chief lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, told the Capital-Star. 

Ending the emergency, then, also ended this small pandemic perk, to the detriment of restaurants’ bottom line.

A bill to make these drinks a permanent part of take-out nights passed the state House with only token opposition, and appeared on track to fly through the Senate to Wolf’s desk. 

But the bill’s unexpected detour back into the committee of state Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, shows the perilous path from bill to law in Harrisburg, and how a simple idea can be knocked off track.

As chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, Regan has a final say on all bills on state liquor law in the upper chamber.

The bill to permanently OK to-go cocktails actually passed out of committee unchanged by a 9-2 vote two weeks ago, but it was sent back to Regan’s committee on Monday. It hasn’t come back up for another vote.

Bruce McLanahan, Regan’s chief-of-staff, told the Capital-Star the original bill was sunshined in preparation for the termination of Wolf’s disaster declaration

He added that Regan wanted to further amend the bill to address other issues facing restaurants once the disaster declaration terminates, such as the extension of licensed premises, the issuance of off-premises catering permits, and an additional year of safekeeping liquor licenses had to be examined.

“To put it frankly, he wasn’t willing to only do half the job,” McLanahan wrote in an email.

While lawmakers also moved this week to extend the almost 500 temporary regulatory changes to give businesses and medical professionals wiggle room, to-go cocktails will not be staying around without a new law, Bova said.

In an email sent to senators Thursday morning, the group said that “mixed drinks to-go … is a key piece of legislation that has been crucial for our industry to get through and recover from this crisis.”

The email added that “it’s vital that restaurants are provided a smooth transition back to normal,” and asked that the Senate send the to-go cocktails bill to the governor “clean, so that restaurants don’t have to suffer at a time when they’re just starting to rebuild.”

By “clean,” the association meant without alteration. It is a common legislative tactic to marry semi-related or unrelated policies together in a single bill to assure there is broad, albeit unwilling, support to get the proposal passed into law.

In the case of to-go cocktails, Regan wants to add his proposal allowing grocery stores, beer distributors, convenience stores, and bars to sell pre-canned cocktails to the bill, according to Bova and Wendell Young, president of UFCW Local 1776, the union that represents workers in the state liquor system.

That’s because under current law, only the state liquor system can sell these canned cocktails. And changes to state liquor law are highly contested, as they could cut into state revenues from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and threaten UFCW jobs in the system.

“What Mike Regan is doing is collaborating with the supermarket industry and convenience store industry…to expand these cocktails in an industry which has nothing to do with restaurants,” Young told the Capital-Star.

It starts with a memo Regan released to colleagues in January, asking for support for a stand- alone bill to allow the private sale of canned cocktails, or “ready-to-drink beverages.”

These are drinks with an alcohol base that contain at least one non-alcoholic component. State beer distributors can sell brewed versions of these drinks, such as White Claw and Truly hard seltzer. 

But sales of liquor-based drinks such as Jack Daniels canned cocktails or pre-mixed margaritas and pina coladas are the purview of the state liquor system.

The Senate Law and Justice Committee and House Liquor Control Committee met in April to hear testimony from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and industry stakeholders to discuss the expansion of canned cocktail sales. 

During the hearing, Rep. Manuel Guzman, D-Berks, asked panelists if lawmakers should consult public health experts and consider limiting the drinks alcohol by volume before pushing legislation that could let thousands of retailers sell canned cocktails.

Ryan Laverty, chief executive officer of VIDE, a canned cocktail retailer, told committee members that consulting health officials would make for “responsible policy.” 

“By that rationale, then, we should cap liquor. We should cap beer,” Regan interjected. “We should cap everyone if ABV is the issue. I mean clearly, we are selling things throughout Pennsylvania that have a way higher ABV.”

The liquor control board declined to comment on pending legislation, but the canned beverages have proven to be a growing source of revenue. In testimony, the board reported two million units for $23.8 million in fiscal year 2019-20. The current fiscal year already totaled 2.8 million units for $31.7 million.

While Wolf has agreed to a loosening of state liquor laws during his two terms, Bova said in an email the restaurant association is worried that tacking on Regan’s proposal could draw a veto and risk further delay. 

“We are hoping the PLCB will work with us to give us some transition room,” she added, “but if we don’t address the cocktails to go situation imminently, over 12,000 restaurants and hotels across the Commonwealth will shortly lose the ability to sell them.”

Young also questioned Regan’s interest in expanding who can sell canned cocktails.

“Does he know any wholesalers who’d benefit from this?” Young told the Capital-Star. “What’s his real motive? People are hijacking [the bill] out of their own greed.”

In fact, Regan had a fundraiser at the home of someone who’d stand to benefit from private sales of canned cocktails this week.

According to an invitation viewed by the Capital-Star, Regan held a fundraiser on Wednesday at the home of Frank Sourbeer.

That fundraiser was a day before the House and Senate were set to finally approve an end to the emergency declaration, also ending to-go cocktails, and two days after Regan recalled the to-go cocktails bill to his committee.

State incorporation records show that Frank Sourbeer is president of Wilsbach Distributors, a Harrisburg-area beer distributor. Charles Sourbeer is listed as vice president, treasurer and secretary of the company.

Frank Sourbeer also co-chaired Regan’s first Senate campaign, according to a news release.

The Sourbeers are active political donors, according to state campaign finance records. Along with donations to the Dauphin County Republican Party and the state beer wholesalers political action committee, they’ve given Regan $39,472 since 2016, when Regan first ran for office, according to a Capital-Star analysis of campaign finance records. 

McLanahan told the Capital-Star in an email that Regan “has not had any substantive conversations with Frank Sourbeer on this issue.”

Whatever the motive, action could be pending in the next week. McLanahan said that Regan intends to call up the bill in committee next week.As of Friday morning, a meeting had not been scheduled, according to the Senate calendar.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.

Marley Parish

Marley Parish covered the Senate for the Capital-Star.