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Booze on the ballot? Pa. Republicans look to take liquor to voters

Legislation would make privatizing liquor a constitutional amendment that could land on a ballot for the 2023 primary election at the earliest.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — For years, republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature have tried to take selling alcohol out of the commonwealth's hands and into those of private businesses. 

Most recently, attempts to privatize liquor in Pennsylvania have been thwarted by democratic Governor Tom Wolf, though his administration has compromised in some areas, including selling beer and wine in grocery stores.

However, a recently introduced bill by Pittsburgh-area republican Natalie Mihalek would take the decision to privatize liquor directly to Pennsylvania voters. House Bill 2272 calls for a constitutional amendment to privatize the commonwealth's state-run liquor system. 

"It has been 88 years since the end of prohibition, and it is time for this commonwealth to modernize the sale of liquor once and for all," wrote Mihalek (R-Allegheny) in a memo to other state legislators.

The republican-controlled legislature passed a bill to privatize the sale of wine and spirits in 2016. Governor Wolf vetoed it. 

Mihalek, a member of the House Liquor Control Committee, was among the legislators at a hearing on Monday. Jan. 24 to discuss her bill. Among them was Wendell Young, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 union.

"Do you think the voters of Pennsylvania aren't capable of deciding this issue?" Mihalek asked Young. 

"No," Young responded. "Not when you don't give them a choice, and you're not giving them a choice."

Mihalek and committee chairman Rep. Carl Metzgar (R-Somerset) argue that's exactly what republicans are doing in making constitutional amendments of bills which, in the past, have been promised a rejection by a democratic governor.

Meanwhile, Young and democrats say the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (LCB) accounts for millions of dollars of state revenue and thousands of jobs. The LCB reported $2.3 billion in sales in the 2021-22 fiscal year. Unions estimate taking away state control of the liquor system would result in 5,000 lost jobs.

"I ask you to pay attention to the facts and data," Young said. "Because if you don't, a lot of people will lose their jobs. You're gonna see a revenue shortfall. You're going to cause the price of alcohol and taxes on alcohol to go up."

No votes were held at Monday's hearing. For a constitutional amendment to land on the ballot for voters, it needs to pass in consecutive sessions with the same language. The earliest that privatizing state liquor could be decided by voters is the 2023 primary election.

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