How Booze Could Save a Political Career

Michael Catalini
March 27, 2013

It’s too early for Republicans to pop the bubbly in Pennsylvania. But they might want to put the champagne on ice.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has been weathering a tough political climate lately. His approval rating is upside down in recent polling, he’s feuded with state legislators over budget issues and he’s struggled to shake his image as the guy who bungled the Penn State scandal. Corbett’s political fortunes could be changing, though, as the state Legislature moves closer to handing the governor a key political victory: privatizing the state-owned “wine and spirits” stores that date back to the post-Prohibition Era.

There’s a lot at stake for Corbett. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that a 53 percent of voters feel he doesn’t deserve reelection, making Pennsylvania one of the Democrats’ top opportunities to pick up a governor’s mansion in 2014 — and in a battleground state, no less. Inheriting a $4.2 billion deficit, Corbett also burned some political capital in his first term by making unpopular budget cuts in higher education. Pennsylvania voters also disapprove of his handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal that roiled the state, according to polls.

Corbett realizes that a victory on liquor-store privatization could give him a much-needed boost. Privatization has majority support, according to recent polling, which isn't surprising since Harrisburg heavily regulates liquor sales. And editorial boards across the state, who are rarely the governor’s allies, are coming to his defense. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, referred to the state-store system in a recent editorial as the “state booze ministry.”

Asked to weigh the privatization effort against other priorities such as transportation funding public-pension funding, Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley suggested just how high the stakes are for the governor.

“Every state is dealing with transportation issues and many states are dealing with public pension issues,” Harley said. “We are only one of two states dealing with state control of liquor stores. This touches a lot more people in a tangible way that they can see because they can go to another state and see what's available to people of other states.”

Pennsylvania’s House passed a version of the privatization measure last week in a party-line vote that Corbett touts as historic. No Democrats in the GOP-controlled House supported the legislation, and five Republicans crossed the aisle to oppose the law. The GOP controls the Pennsylvania Senate; and while there are indications that leadership may alter the House bill, the chamber is expected to take the issue up soon, according to reports.

The philosophical backbone of the governor’s position has become a mantra of sorts, with supporters of privatization employing two buzzwords: convenience and choice. The theory is that a limited number of state-run stores offers fewer options. Supporters also argue that residents of 48 other states don’t believe regulating liquor sales is a core function of government, and it shouldn’t be in Pennsylvania either.

It’s a case that makes the governor cautiously optimistic.

“The governor believes it's one step at a time. He's prepared to work with the Senate to give Pennsylvanians what they want,” Harley said.

Still, the liquor-store system has historical momentum behind it and the strident support of Democrats and unions. The Legislature created the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which runs the state’s stores, in 1933 in an effort to hold on to Prohibition-era ideals. But since then, the system has grown. Opponents of privatization point to the nearly 5,000 people the stores employ and the nearly $500 million they contribute to the state’s coffers.

Supporters counter that privatization legislation is deficit-neutral, meaning the state shouldn’t take a hit to its bottom line. Corbett wants proceeds from the sale of stores to go toward education, but that issue is still being debated.

In Pennsylvania, wine and alcohol — traditionally called "spirits" in the commonwealth — can be bought almost exclusively in state-run stores. Residents currently can buy six-packs and single bottles of beer from some bars and restaurants. For kegs and cases of beer, they have to go to a beer distributor. Under privatization, the state stores would close, and  licenses to sell alcohol would be auctioned to convenience stores, big-box stores, and distributors. 

The efforts of politicians to bring glasnost to state liquor sales go back decades. Former Republican Govs. Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburgh tried and failed, as did Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp.

There’s added urgency in Corbett’s case, though, argued Pennsylvania political analyst G. Terry Madonna. Why?

“I don't think there's any doubt he needs something of a victory that has voter support,” Madonna said.