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June 07, 2016

Wine might soon be sold at some Pennsylvania grocery stores

General Assembly sends Gov. Wolf legislation permitting grocery stores to sell wine

A liquor reform bill sent Tuesday to Gov. Tom Wolf would permit some grocery stores to sell wine.

The House of Representatives passed HB 1690 by a 157-31 vote, the final approval needed within the General Assembly. The bill went through a bevy of amendments in the Senate before being sent back to the House in December.

If Wolf signs the legislation, grocery stores that currently sell beer, such as Wegman's, would be allowed to sell up to four bottles of wine to each customer.

The legislation will not impact hard liquor sales or close the Pennsylvania's 600 state-operated liquor stores. Instead, it enables them to expand their hours and provide special discounts and sales.

Wolf heralded the legislation in a statement released Tuesday afternoon:

“Today the House concurred with the Senate on historic liquor modernization legislation that provides greater customer convenience to the people of Pennsylvania," Wolf said. "As I have always said, my goal is to modernize the sale of liquor and beer in Pennsylvania to ensure convenience and satisfaction for customers. Once the bill reaches my desk, I will conduct a final review of the legislation to ensure it meets my goals of enhancing the customer experience, increasing much-needed revenue to help balance our budget, and bringing our wine and spirits system into the 21st century.”

Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, told that he was optimistic that Wolf would sign the bill. 

"We are, in fact, going to move Pennsylvania into the 21st century," Turzai told "It is an important, historic step and this is a product that is shared by all of us."

Turzai has long advocated for privatizing the state system, but this legislation keeps the state system in place. It removes restrictions on their hours of operation, allowing state stores to open on Sundays and holidays. It also enables them to launch loyalty programs and offer specials and discounts.

Meanwhile, customers of licensed restaurants and hotels can buy up to four wine bottles for takeout. They also will be able to purchase the same amount at grocery stores that currently sell beer. 

"What we're trying to do today is exactly what my constituents would like to see take place," said state Rep. Lee James, R-Venango County.

The bill passed somewhat unexpectedly on Tuesday, being re-reported on concurrence by the House Rules Committee the same day. It was supported by 46 Democrats, but drew strong objections from the head of the union that represents state liquor store clerks. 

"We're opposed to it and think it's crazy that we would do this," said Wendell Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776. "Of course, we're used to crazies in the Republican Party, but we're not used to Democrats joining the crazies. There must be some sort of virus in the building."

The bill that passed the Senate in December – with most Democrats opposed – would let some 14,000 holders of takeout beer licenses sell up to four bottles of wine to a customer. It would allow takeout wine sales in licensed restaurants, bars, hotels, supermarkets and delis.

That plan marked drastic changes from the original version, introduced last fall in the House, which would have eliminated the state's liquor stores and enabled retail beer distributors to apply for licenses to sell beer, wine and liquor.

Both Turzai and House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, said they saw the bill as a step toward liquor privatization. Reed said it will produce about $150 million in new revenue for the cash-strapped state government.

"We think this puts wine into the private sector like consumers have been looking for for years," Reed said. "There are certainly other components to it that will help modernize the system, but overall we view this as the first step to fully privatizing our liquor system in Pennsylvania."

Just three Republicans voted against the bill, including state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, of Bucks County. He said alcohol abuse represented a major problem.

"We are going from 620 state stores that sell alcohol across the state of Pennsylvania to potentially 15-20,000 outlets that will now be allowed to sell alcohol," he said. "Is that what we need for our state of Pennsylvania? I don't think so."

Supporters have said supermarkets and big-box retail stores would likely purchase takeout licenses from current holders or the state. The proposal also would give state-owned stores more latitude about setting hours and which products they stock.

Another provision would let casinos serve alcohol around-the-clock instead of just for 19 hours of the day under current law.

Wineries also would be allowed to send products directly to Pennsylvania customers.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.