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Union stalls liquor privatization

If you want to buy booze in Pennsylvania, you'll likely do it the way your great-grandparents did.

Getting a spiced rum or a good Riesling here means a trip to one of about 600 so-called state stores. While there've been efforts to bring them into the mainstream of contemporarymarketing, where design is concerned they're inescapably Mid-Century Institutional mostly generic shops with antiseptic white lighting, often identified outside by a simple sign proclaiming "Wine & Spirits."The public employees who run them don drab aprons at the checkout.Those who want a frothy craft beer will have no luck in the state stores. Instead, they'll have to go to a warehouse-like beer distributor that can sell only cases and 12 packs. Six-packs? You buy those in so-called bottle shops or bars.For five years, some Pennsylvania Republicans have worked to end the state's monopoly on retail and wholesale wine and spirits sales and to allow one-stop shops for beer, wine and liquor. And for five years they've failed, running up against Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food And Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents about 3,500 state-store employees.Young and his organized labor allies are so successful in maintaining a nearly century-old system that they crushed privatization efforts even when the GOP controlled both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor's office.The reason? Young says he wins because he has truth on this side."Everything that Local 1776 has told people about the system has turned out to be true," Young said.Not true, say reformers."Their claims have not resonated," said Nate Benefield, vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank. "What has resonated is their political clout and money."PLCB gives $526 millionOne of Young's central arguments to keep the state stores focuses on cold, hard cash.According to figures from the PLCB, the state-store system poured almost $526 million into the state Treasury in fiscal year 2013-14. That was the highest one-year total since 1998-99, when figures were no longer compiled on a five-year basis."What we now know is that the system does make money," Young said.Of that $526 million, about $321 million came from the state's 18 percent liquor tax, while about another $125 million stemmed from the state's 6 percent sales tax. All told, nearly 85 percent of the PLCB's contribution came from taxes revenue that privatization supporters note would still come in even if private retailers sold wine and liquor.No guaranteesThen there's simply the procedural challenge for liquor privatization.It's a pet project of House Speaker Mike Turzai, an Allegheny County Republican who has guided it through the House twice now. Yet the state Senate, though also controlled by the GOP, has never been as adamant about the issue.That might change this session, now that state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, has announced plans to introduce his own privatization legislation.Joe Conti, a former Republican state representative and state senator believes liquor privatization isn't quite the dramatic issue it was in past budget battles.The union has another strong ally in Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. While he says he'll modernize the system, he opposes privatization. Even if a privatization bill makes it to Wolf's desk, his veto pen would loom large. Conti sees no scenario in which Wolf would sign the House's privatization legislation."There's a lot of jobs on the line here," Conti said, referring to the 3,500 state employees.As of 2012, the average liquor store clerk made about $31,000 a year with an additional $21,000 in benefits. Young's gross salary was $310,637 in 2014, according to filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.While a privatization bill passed by the House earlier this year would phase out the state stores, those employees would not be totally forsaken. They would receive extra points on the civil service exam, preferential treatment for jobs that don't require the civil service exam and grants for education.Republicans also say privatization will lead to more businesses and more hiring opportunities, especially for former state-store employees, as retail outlets soar from 600 to as many as 1,800.