Rep. Payne: Wider alcohol reforms needed

As Pennsylvania considers privatization, lawmaker worries climate could crimp plans

Bartender Johanna Walmsley prepares drink orders at Tailgaters Grille & Drafthouse during the York County establishment's 5 to 7 p.m. Friday happy hour. Recently passed House Bill 148, awaiting action in the Senate, would allow bar owners to have four hours of so-called happy hours per day, up from two. Photo/Amy Spangler

Pennsylvania needs to improve the operating climate for all alcohol-related businesses or else plans lawmakers are hatching to sell the state-run liquor store system as a way to raise revenue will be stifled, a Dauphin County lawmaker said.

“It’s not about drinking. It’s about business,” said Rep. John Payne, R-Dauphin County.

The philosophy is leading to legislation such as House Bill 148, which recently passed by a wide margin and awaits action in the Senate. Among other changes, it would allow bar owners to have four hours of so-called happy hour per day, up from two, but only allow up to 14 hours per week.

At first glance, the issue seems a bit distant from the privatization debate.

However, if it helps a bar fill stools on a slow night, then it does help generate tax revenue, Payne said. It also could bolster business for future state-store buyers. The system is the wholesale supplier of spirits in Pennsylvania as well as a retailer.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are waiting for a bill to formally propose privatization of state stores, an idea backed by new Gov. Tom Corbett, Payne said.

If the happy-hour bill becomes law as written, it would be better than the regulation on the books today, said Danette Small-Shultz, co-owner of York Township-based Tailgaters Grille & Drafthouse.

But businesses still need more leeway to operate to their maximum potential, she said.

In York County, there are many companies that operate multiple shifts, Small-Shultz said. Ideally, the business would like to offer a happy hour for the people getting off their shifts and coming home around late afternoon or early evening, and another later in the evening when second shift lets out, Small-Shultz said.

Legislators heard about rules that left them scratching their heads during Liquor Control Committee hearings spawned by the privatization debate, Payne said.

One that Payne highlighted is that 75 percent of all wine and spirits retailers in Pennsylvania must close on Sundays. He asked why anyone would want to buy into a system constrained by such rules.

Many business leaders in other industries and government leaders don’t realize how tangled the web of regulations is for bars, taverns and restaurants in Pennsylvania, Small-Shultz said.

She also is secretary of the Pennsylvania Tavern Association, which tries to mentor bar owners on how rules affect their businesses. Considering how pervasive they are in each facet of operations, it’s not surprising many tavern owners do not fully grasp the regulations, she said.

For example, Tailgaters and other taverns legally can purchase liquor and wine from state stores in Pennsylvania with a credit card and reap reward points available to them. But she cannot go to a beer distributor for a wholesale transaction, make a big purchase to stock their coolers and pay for it with credit, she said.

The list goes on and on, Small-Shultz said. But she also said that reforms are proposed in session after session of the legislature and time will tell whether they get traction this time around.

Not everyone would jump on the longer happy hour opportunity.

Even if the law does change, Lancaster Brewing Co. likely will not alter its happy hours, said marketing director Patrick Casey. The two-hour happy hours are working for the Lancaster-based business.

“That is sufficient,” Casey said.

Opposition remains for any proposals to expand the ability to sell alcohol in the state Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Peach Bottom, was one of more than a dozen House members who voted against House Bill 148.

It contained a provision outlining how liquor licenses can be transferred or renewed in certain circumstances that could make it harder for local communities to be dry, Cutler said. Such decisions should not be made in Harrisburg, he said.

Taking a wider view, Cutler also said his primary duty is to represent his southern Lancaster County constituency, which on moral grounds generally opposes expansion of gambling or alcohol sales.

“That is something I always keep in the back of my mind,” Cutler said.

Many of the provisions in House Bill 148 were removed before final passage, Payne said. The original would have allowed greater scheduling flexibility for happy hours.

It also would have allowed to-go wine sales of unopened bottles at restaurants, a provision supported by the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association.

Payne said he plans to keep plugging away with plans to propose more reforms along with his legislative cohorts. None, he said, are seeking to make it easier for someone to sit at a bar for hours on end and get drunk.

“That doesn’t mean you are promoting drunks.” Payne said. “You are promoting good, sensible business growth.”

Brent Burkey

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