The banner hanging behind the small podium left little doubt about Gov. Tom Corbett’s message.
Two phrases, printed in black on a white background, repeated over and over again: Consumer choice. Consumer convenience.
Corbett visited Berks County on Wednesday to stump for his plan to privatize Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor store system, a move he says will do those two things.
Speaking during a press conference to a small crowd assembled inside the Greater Reading Chamber Center for Business Excellence in Spring Township, he called the current state system a relic of the post-Prohibition era.
And it’s high time for it to change, he said.
“Selling alcohol isn’t a core function of government,” he said. “However, education is.”
That’s why, the governor said, he tied the sale of the liquor system to education funding when he introduced his privatization plan in early February. And although the privatization bill recently passed by the state House does not specifically earmark the $1 billion he believes the sale will net for education, it’s still part of the governor’s overall plan.
The bill is now sitting in the Senate.
Corbett said Rep. Ryan P. Aument, a Lancaster County Republican, will introduce a bill that creates the Passport for Learning Block Grant program and directs money the state raises from privatization of the liquor system to fund it.
The grant program would provide funding to schools across the state over four years, and pay for things like expanding engineering and math programs, making sure students are learning on grade level by third grade and school safety improvements.
“No child can learn in a place where he or she does not feel safe,” Corbett said.
Corbett admitted the bill passed by the House is a less-aggressive version of his original plan, and said he has no idea what it will look like once it makes its way through the Senate.
He declined to speculate on what specific changes he would see as deal breakers – causing him to veto it when it reached his desk – instead simply repeating his position that the state needs to get out of the liquor business.
Call for bipartisanship
The Republican governor said he was disappointed the House bill did not get Democratic support, adding he hoped that wouldn’t be the case in the Senate.
“To me this is not a partisan bill,” he said.
And when asked about the timing of the bill and whether it would impact his chances for re-election next year, Corbett again declined to speculate.
“I’ll get re-elected on keeping my promises or not keeping my promises,” he said, agreeing that privatization was one of the promises he ran his campaign on.
Corbett said he would like the privatization bill to be approved by the Senate before the state finalizes its budget, which is supposed to happen by July 1, but wouldn’t go as far as to say he would refuse to sign off on the budget if the liquor issue was not resolved.
Corbett was joined in his call for privatization Wednesday by a host of legislators, local business leaders and educators, who flanked him as he spoke. Two – Sen. Mike Brubaker, a Lancaster Republican, and David W. Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council – also spoke.
“Should government be involved in the sale and promotion of alcohol?” Brubaker asked rhetorically. “It’s as simple as that for me.”
In a response issued later, Sen. Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat, said making it easier for more people to buy more beer and liquor will only add to economic and crime problems facing the county.
“There will be 5,000 new wine and beer licenses issued if Gov. Corbett gets his way,” she said. “Too many of those new establishments will be in my district and the social ills they create will only exacerbate Reading’s and Berks County’s problems.”
She said Corbett’s promise to turn over the proceeds to education is weak.
“What will school districts do when the money is spent?” she asked. “This is a carrot-and-stick ploy that will taste more like sawdust when there are no more state-owned liquor stores and the ability to buy alcohol lurks on every corner.”
Brubaker said his mostly conservative constituents in Lancaster and Chester counties overwhelmingly support privatization, and he’ll do what he can to make sure a bill is passed.
Calling the state’s involvement in the liquor business “80 years of interference” into the private sector, Patti said the state should limit itself to regulating the industry.
“The state’s role ends there,” he said.