Last week, Republicans and Democrats in the Pennsylvania House voted for a sensible bill that the state Senate had already passed, and the governor promptly signed it into law.
That's right: It was a weird week.
The outbreak of sobriety - which "came out of nowhere," as one lawmaker put it to the Allentown Morning Call - was especially surprising in that it effected a moderate but substantial relaxation of the state's byzantine liquor laws, a subject usually guaranteed to reduce the legislature to hyper-partisan paroxysms of counterproductivity.
Having agreed to the not entirely controversial proposition that the government doesn't have to sell every bottle of wine consumed in the commonwealth, perhaps the Republican-led legislature and Democratic governor will get so carried away as to agree on other generally accepted principles - like the need to balance the budget, meet pension obligations, and fund public schools.
The new law will allow wine to be sold in supermarkets, a prospect as unremarkable in most of the country as it is momentous in Pennsylvania, the state that once attempted to invent a bureaucrat-mediated, Breathalyzer-equipped wine-vending machine. Wine sales, having been largely restricted to government stores since Prohibition, provide most of the fuel that sustains the state's sprawling booze ministry. Last week's legislation, which will also let Pennsylvanians order directly from out-of-state wineries, comes amid efforts by the Liquor Control Board, backed by Gov. Wolf, to liberalize the beer market by extending six-pack sales to more convenience stores.
The state Senate passed the wine legislation back in December as part of a proposed grand budget bargain with the governor. But House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who did more than anyone to kill that deal, opposed the bill as an LCB "modernization" measure designed to head off full-blown privatization of wine and liquor sales, which he and many other Republicans have reasonably advocated.
Last week's breakthrough appears to have come when Turzai dropped his opposition to the legislation, allowing all sides to claim incremental progress despite differing long-term goals. It was the right move: While expanding wine sales to a few hundred select supermarkets certainly falls short of dragging Pennsylvania's liquor laws into the 20th century, it is a significant concession by Democrats who have staunchly defended the state's backward liquor monopoly. Take it from State Store union boss and avid Democratic underwriter Wendell Young IV, who told the Inquirer that the bill may well sound the LCB's death knell. Moreover, in the shadow of the deadline for next year's budget, the legislation could yield $150 million in new revenue to help close the deficit.