HARRISBURG — When fireworks sales were legalized in Pennsylvania two years ago, sales boomed and patrons flocked to pop-up tent stands around the holidays to buy the celebratory displays — and add a decent chunk of revenue to the state’s coffers.
But the tents selling aerial fireworks have disappeared, the result of a court ruling. And they won’t be reappearing before July Fourth or anytime this summer, as the legislature has put off action on a bill that could have made them legal again.
Those roadside tents proved to be a cash cow for the state, but Commonwealth Court late last year declared them illegal. And the state has since taken a substantial hit in tax revenue, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue.
Those losses will continue through the July 4th weekend because the state legislature — preoccupied with the race to approve a new budget by July 1 — did not act on a bill that called for changing the law to allow tents to operate. And lawmakers will not return to session in the Capitol until September.
"All I’m trying to do is correct something the courts said we did wrong,” Sen. Gene Yaw (R., Bradford), who introduced the bill earlier this year, said in a recent interview.
In December, the Commonwealth Court ruled fireworks tents were illegal because they were regulated by a federal safety agency instead of a state agency.
The ruling was a result of a lawsuit brought by fireworks companies that have permanent, brick-and-mortar locations.
Phantom Fireworks, which filed the suit, alleged it was competing for sales with tent structures that had lower overhead and licensing fees, among other things, which put them at a competitive disadvantage. The court ruled against the tent stands on a technicality.
For tents selling aerial fireworks to be made legal again, they would have to be regulated by a state agency and that would require a change in the law, said Drew Crompton, the Senate’s lawyer. Under Yaw’s bill, the state Department of Agriculture would be responsible for visiting and inspecting the tents.
Crompton said that any changes to the law could open up the old tensions between tents and brick-and-mortar stores that instigated the lawsuit.
“It’s a lot bigger than just the administrative fix,” he said. “It restarts the engines on both sides between the tents and the box stores.”
In 2017, legislators legalized explosive fireworks, such as mortars and rockets — bigger ones that can shoot more than 50 feet high. (Prior to the new law, only novelty items, like sparklers and fountains, were permitted for in-state sales. Fireworks retailers, however, could sell explosive fireworks to out-of-state buyers).
According to the agriculture department, since 2017, the state’s approximate 80 brick-and-mortar stores brought in $1.5 million in licensing revenue. Temporary structures, like tents, earned the state $1.2 million in licensing revenue in 2018 alone. No revenue has been collected from tent licenses since the tents were found to be illegal.
While Yaw is working to make them more accessible, Rep. Frank Farry (R., Bucks) is pushing a bill that will create some barriers to boom.
Farry is pushing a bill that would limit the times that fireworks could be shot, require fireworks stores to post laws at the checkout counters, and increase fines for fireworks users who break the law.