HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania Senate, voting along strictly partisan lines, gave preliminary approval early Saturday to a much-revised plan for privatizing the state-run liquor system.
The 1:20 a.m. vote sets the stage for two more crucial liquor votes this weekend: the Senate is expected to consider the plan on final passage later Saturday; then, the House of Representatives, which previously approved a more aggressive plan, would weigh in, likely on Sunday.
Those expected votes are sure to highlight a frantic weekend in the Capitol as Gov. Corbett and the Republican-controlled legislature race to meet the deadline to pass a state budget by midnight Sunday night, as well as strike a compromise on the governor's three key initiatives — and perhaps help Philadelphia with its school funding crisis, as well.
By early Saturday, no deal had been struck on any of the so-called Big Three: liquor privatization (despite its success in the Senate in the early hours of Saturday morning); funding roads, bridges, and mass transit; and reining in public-employee pension costs.
Still, Senate leaders worked past midnight on the latest version of a liquor-privatization plan after Republicans who rule the 50-member chamber spent hours behind closed doors trying to secure the votes needed to approve the bill. The Senate's 23 Democrats were united in voting against liquor privatization. It was not immediately clear whether the GOP-controlled House would support the measure.
The revised Senate GOP liquor plan would allow beer distributors to sell the alcohol trifecta - beer, wine and hard liquor – under the same roof. Those distributors would also be able to sell six-packs, whereas now they can only sell beer by the case or keg.
Another change in the bill would make beer available for sale at many gas stations for first time.
State stores would close down only when they were outnumbered, 2-to-1, by beer distributors who sell the alcohol trifecta.
And last-minute language was added to create buffer zones around existing beer distributors ito prevent some nearby food markets from offering beer.
Beer distributors have been a key interest group in the long-running argument over whether and how to privatize the liquor system. A prominent figure among distributors - and in Bucks County Republican politics — is Pasquale T. "Pat" Deon, the SEPTA board chairman who runs a beer distributorship in Fairless Hills.
The liquor issue capped a day of drama in which some House members mutinied over Medicaid expansion and lobbyists for liquor and transportation interests swarmed the hallways of the Capitol, trying, much like everyone else, to figure out the strategy for the next two days. Bad weather caused several key players to be away for several hours: Corbett, Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) went to DuBois to tour flood damage there.
This much was clear: To be on time, the proposed $28 billion-plus budget must be passed by legislators and signed by Corbett by midnight Sunday night. Corbett has said he wants action on his three initiatives by then, as well.
"They still have time to do it," Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said Friday night. "The question is whether they have the will to get it done, and we think they do. Negotiations are continuing, and they are positive."
Unlike in Corbett's first two years in office, the sticking point this year is not the budget itself. In fact, the spending in it is mostly settled, though the administration and GOP legislative leaders still must make some key decisions, such as whether to freeze or scale back one of Corbett's largest business-tax cuts to date.
The big question marks are about the Big Three. Technically, none of them need to be completed by Sunday's budget deadline. But the governor is up for reelection next year and fighting against sagging approval ratings in public opinion polls. A big legislative win could help chip away at those numbers.
By early Saturday, liquor privatization and transportation funding appeared to to have the best shot at getting to a floor vote. At the same time, Senate leaders sent strong signals that a bill to make changes to the state's two biggest public-employee pension systems was likely to be relegated to the fall agenda.
The House, meanwhile, had adjourned at 5:45 p.m., raising more than a few eyebrows in the Capitol, as it had been widely expected its members might start debating the transportation-funding bill.
Both the liquor and transportation-funding bills have to be voted on Saturday in at least one chamber if they have a chance at getting done by Sunday's midnight deadline. The two chambers are expected to work straight through the weekend.