By Angela Couloumbis
Inquirer Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania may be the birthplace of freedom and the bedrock of liberty - but not if you want to buy beer.
That was the battle cry yesterday at a crowded rally in the Capitol Rotunda organized by Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr. (R., Montgomery), who wants to overhaul the state's beer laws, many of which date back to Prohibition.
Rafferty's proposal is simple: He wants to make it easier for the consumer to buy a six-pack.
But that idea faces a tough fight in a state that historically has been loath to make any radical changes in how residents buy their suds.
"This is about consumer choice," Rafferty told several hundred people - many of them convenience-store employees - who gathered at yesterday's rally. "That's what we're trying to do by opening up the market."
Rafferty is circulating a bill that would allow beer distributors, supermarkets, convenience stores, and bars and taverns to sell everything from a six-pack up to a case of beer.
As it stands now, beer drinkers can purchase cases containing four six-packs only at distributors.
And though a handful of supermarkets such as Wegmans have recently obtained licenses to sell beer at in-store "eating areas," people who want six-packs generally have to go to a bar, deli, or corner eatery to get them - usually at a steep markup.
Rafferty's legislation would also require what the senator called "100 percent carding," meaning shoppers would always have to show identification when buying beer, whether they looked 9 or 90.
And the measure would step up enforcement of underage drinking laws, and fund it through a one-time, $25,000 fee on establishments applying for a beer license, plus an annual $2,500 renewal fee.
"We support this bill because it treats adults like adults and it protects the rights of beer drinkers," said Stan Sheetz, chief executive officer of Sheetz Inc., who attended yesterday's rally and brought with him several dozen of his store's employees.
Sheetz, whose convenience-store chain recently lost a legal battle to sell six-packs, added: "Our beer laws are backward, they're counterintuitive, they're inefficient, and they're hypocritical."
Not true, countered David Shipula, president of the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, which represents more than 450 beer distributors.
The association, he said, has no problem with a bill allowing beer distributors to sell six-packs - as long as the privilege doesn't extend to convenience stores and supermarkets.
Rafferty's proposal, Shipula maintains, could eventually lure other big-name chains such as Wal-Mart or Target to start selling beer, which would swiftly put some of his members - mostly small, family-owned stores - out of business.
The bill could also jeopardize what Shipula contends is a system that ensures that beer is sold responsibly and that minors are not getting their hands on the product.
"We believe in the controlled system," he said.
Few would quibble that Pennsylvania has some of the more restrictive laws in the land when it comes to selling beer. In Delaware and New Jersey, for instance, liquor stores are privately owned and can sell beer - from six-packs to cases to kegs - alongside wines and spirits.
And although a number of Harrisburg legislators have tried to revamp beer laws over the years, they've been unsuccessful - in part because of special interests that have lobbied hard to keep the system intact.
Rafferty is among those who have tried, and failed, to change the laws.
But the Republican senator believes this time could be different. He's lining up cosponsors in the GOP-controlled Senate as he gets ready to introduce his bill. (A narrower proposal in the state House would allow beer distributors to sell six-packs.)
Rafferty reasons that the time might be right - a number of supermarkets have recently started selling beer in dining areas and had no reported problems. That, Rafferty says, shows that the world will not end if you can buy beer in more Pennsylvania places.
Even so, it remains unclear whether the legislature will even tackle the issue as it grapples with the state's tough economic problems.
There are potential legal obstacles, too.
The distributors association, for instance, recently fought Sheetz all the way to the state Supreme Court to prevent the convenience store from selling beer - and won. The high court last year ruled that Sheetz could not sell six-packs unless the stores had dining areas that also offered beer.
The association is also mounting a legal challenge against Wegmans, which has 13 Pennsylvania stores with restaurant licenses allowing them to sell beer. Oral arguments in that case are scheduled for April 14 in the state Supreme Court.