Our opinion: Corralling a runaway

The liquor privatization bill that galloped through the Pennsylvania House, has slowed to a walk in the Senate.

Questions are being asked and concerns being voiced, even among Republicans whose allegiance to Gov. Tom Corbett, at least on this issue, is showing some strain.

Now, after having studied the House’s bill, a number of Pennsylvania breweries and beer distributors are starting to worry about whether they will be forced to compete for sales with bigger, better-prepared rivals.

Yes, under the House bill by a late amendment, beer distributors would get first crack at licenses for six-pack sales, wine and liquor in addition to their beer-by-the-case sales now.

While that sounds like a dandy idea on its face, a little deeper examination makes it look more like a $100 gift certificate toward the purchase of a new Mercedes.

The cost to existing beer distributors, while significantly less than to those not currently licensed to sell beer, would be more than $50,000 in a sixth class county like this one. However, for distributors whose establishments operate like walk-in warehouses with stacks of beer cases, a cooler and a cash register, adding space for a consumer-friendly display of wine and spirits would, in many cases, require a significant expansion and reorganization. Since supermarket chains, like that one based in Bentonville, Ark., have the cash and the facilities to hit the ground running, many local beer distributors may not be able to justify the cost if the big boxes are going to undercut their prices anyway.

As for local brewers, they are worried that when the licenses go to national chains, their wares will be squeezed out by the giants, like In-Bev.

Those visions of opportunity for mom-and-pop entrepreneurs are starting to cloud.

This is not to say that the whole concept of privatization is fatally damaged, but if you’re going to end the employment of thousands of workers and risk putting existing businesses at a disadvantage, you should make sure the end result is worth it.

The legislation that the House has knee-jerked to the Senate suffers from much of the same short-sighted flaws that ultimately disappointed the governor and his legislative crew in their quest for establishing a voter ID system in time for the November presidential election.

This issue is far more complicated and more important than just saying “the state should not be in the liquor business.”

As Sen. Charles McIlhinney, a Republican from Bucks County, said: “Privatization for political reasons – simply to tout the achievement – would be wrong.”