A liquor law compromise, by any other name…

Kitty Kon of Robinson browses the selection of wines at the Settler's Ridge Market District on Friday, Aug. 19, 2016.  Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Kitty Kon of Robinson browses the selection of wines at the Settler’s Ridge Market District on Friday, Aug. 19, 2016. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

BY KARI ANDREN  kandren@tribweb.com

In politics as in life, words are powerful.

How politicians or advocates phrase a pitch to voters can decidedly color how that idea is perceived. Consider, for example, the connotation of “gun control” versus “violence prevention” or “pro-abortion” versus “pro-choice.”

In Pennsylvania, we parse words over an issue near and dear to residents’ hearts:  booze.

In June, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law that expands wine sales to grocery stores, allows state stores to be open longer hours and customers to get wine shipped to their doors as well as a host of other changes.

Act 39 is hailed by virtually all sides as the Great Liquor Compromise.

But if you look carefully, Republicans – who typically support fully turning over alcohol sales to private businesses – call Act 39 “privatization.”

Meanwhile Democrats, who tend to support state stores for the millions of dollars they pump into state coffers and thousands of union jobs they provide, proclaim Act 39 as “modernizing” state liquor laws.

A few examples from the last week:

“After more than 80 years of full government control, the Prohibition Era has ended and the Privatization Era has begun,” trumpeted House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, as the first grocery store wine sales launched in Robinson.

“We call it privatization — or at least steps toward privatization,” said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans. “We understand it’s not a total accomplishment, but it’s something where we wanted to take steps in the right direction.”

Wolf, a Democrat, cheered the new law: “This historic liquor reform package … enhances the customer experience by providing Pennsylvanians with greater convenience and satisfaction.”

And Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Centre County, said: “I know many of my constituents are happy with the liquor modernization efforts that have recently taken effect.”

So who’s right?

Well, everyone.

The new law does allow a private business, like a grocery store or restaurant, to sell bottles of wine directly to the consumer for the first time. That’s at least a modicum of privatization.

On the other hand, those businesses have to buy the wine from the state Liquor Control Board. And state stores aren’t going anywhere; in fact, they will be open longer and more days a week. Those changes are part of modernization proposals bandied about for years.

“I think it’s more than semantics,” said Gerald Shuster, professor of political communications at the University of Pittsburgh. “In both cases, it fits right into the political philosophies of both parties.”

The word choice reinforces to constituents what each side was fighting for in the compromise, Shuster said.

“They both claim victory without selling out and without being critical of the other side,” he said.

As for the agency tasked with rolling out the new law?

“It’s a debate,” Board member Michael Negra told WHTM-TV reporter Dennis Owens when asked recently.

“We’re not going to get into the political fray,” said LCB spokeswoman Elizabeth Brassell. “We are implementing Act 39 as it was enacted.”

This story was first posted at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, August 25 2016