Newsmaker Q&A: Mike Turzai

John L. Micek
Allentown Morning Call

If you’re looking for the man to praise — or blame — for this year’s push to privatize Pennsylvania’s more than 600 state-owned liquor stores, then House Majority LeaderMike Turzai is your guy. The Allegheny County Republican is the prime sponsor of legislation that would get Pennsylvania out of the booze business, putting its post-Prohibition Era liquor system up for auction. Estimates vary, but some believe the state could get as much as $2 billion in up-front cash by selling off Pennsylvania’s wholesale outlets and auctioning off 1,250 retail licenses to the highest bidder. Turzai is the subject of this week’s Q&A.

Q: You’ve said more than once that you think that there’s never been a better time to auction off the state’s liquor stores. What makes you think this is the case?

A: The public is overwhelmingly behind it. And the public seems to be trumping the politicians these days. People are actually listening. And I think it gives the cause a big advantage. People who, in the past, might not have been as open about it, are very open-minded about. And when they talk to people about it from all backgrounds, they say, ‘Why are we doing this?’

Q: You’ve also said you believe the principle of privatization trumps whatever cash the state can net from the auction of liquor licenses. What’s the balance between the two?

A: “The governor has said this too, I’m not alone in this. It’s not a core function of government. In fact, it’s even worse, it’s a conflict of interest. We should not be the entity that does law enforcement and alcohol education and be the same one pushing vodka on Mother’s Day. Do I think the upfront money, while sustaining annual revenues, is a helpful factor? I think it is. We’ve got issues. The windfall needs to be put to some targeted need where we see tangible results. We ought not to be in the business regardless.

Q: What’s the likelihood, as you’ve mentioned, of the proceeds from the sale being earmarked for transportation funding?

A: I’ve had a lot of members say, ‘Mike, we’re bought in. We’re ready.’ But they want to make sure the up-front money … where’s it going to go? I think there has been significant discussion about transportation needs. People like outside-the-box thinking, and they think maybe this is a place it should go in a very, very targeted fashion, like a specific bridge. I think some people see it [as seed money]. Given some of the discussion on the table, it could be a significant kick-off.

Q: What are the chances for a school-choice bill passing this fall? The House has always been the harder sell of the two chambers, it seems.

A: I think that there are important issues. But the governor and his team, they’re going to have to go sell it. They really need to make the case [in the House and the state]. A lot of time, you see movement in the Legislature, when people are people are pushing it. I think, in the school districts that aren’t performing, it’s not always their fault. I don’t blame educators in some of these districts. Sometimes I think it is the system. Sometimes there are bigger issues. But you got to find ways for kids to succeed. I’m certainly open to looking to find more ways to get kids to succeed. But in the end, the governor and his team have to state the case.”

Q: You’re eight months into the job as majority leader. What’s been the most surprising thing about it?

A: I had a sense of it. But you never really know it until you do it. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, I can do that job.’ But there’s the behind the scenes mini-battles that you have to deal with one-on-one. People are all elected. We’re all equals in that regard. It’s a lot of listening, which is good. But from there, you have to say, we have to go there. But it’s probably the amount of time, in trying to balance a good family life and still be able to touch base in the House with all your colleagues and staff. And the folks who want to see you. The time commitment is significant. But you’ve got to find a way to make sure you have a good family life too. Or it’s not going to work.”

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