Continuing what has been something of a budget-season sidelight, the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday held a hearing with members of the Pennsylvania State Police and Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to examine the Legislature’s options in terms of cracking down on so-called Stop & Go liquor establishments.
By way of background, the term “Stop & Go” is an unofficial term of art used to describe certain liquor licensees holding restaurant or eating-place licenses who operate on the fringes of state law in terms of lawful behavior for licensed liquor establishments.
Most notorious for serving liquor to-go, Stop & Go locations have been known to only try to meet the very base requirements of keeping their license or in total obfuscation of the requirements of maintaining their license.
They have also been accused of having a negative impact on the quality of life in neighborhoods where they exist – most predominantly in Philadelphia and its ring counties – due to their alleged sales to minors, low standards of facility upkeep and the vagaries that come with selling consumable liquors on a to-go basis.
This session, the Philadelphia delegation in both chambers of the General Assembly has taken a proactive role in looking for legislative solutions to ensure these establishments can no longer operate in their current manner.
Earlier this year, the delegation held legislative hearings in Philadelphia getting a sense of the issue from the ground level.
Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) was the prime sponsor of legislation resulting from the hearings that made it through the House in late-spring.
That legislation proposed to tackle the issue by creating “saturated nuisance markets” that would address Stop & Go locations by creating heightened standards for restaurant seating, food service, and other liquor-license related requirements.
As a follow-up, a proposal worked on by several senators – including Law and Justice Committee Majority Chairman Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks), Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia), and Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) –took on the issue in a different manner by allowing Liquor Control Board auditors to take action on violations of license terms. It was included as part of the Fiscal Code bill used as part of the state budget revenue process.
Last week, the House stripped out the Senate-inserted language, leaving the issue once again unaddressed.
Tuesday’s hearing focused on ways to incorporate already-proposed concepts with new tools offered by testifiers from the Pennsylvania State Police’s Bureau of Liquor Enforcement and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
Noting the lack of effective deterrent measures, Major Scott T. Miller of the Pennsylvania State Police said higher fines and a greater chance of a licensee losing their liquor license should be considered as potential solutions to the issue before making sweeping changes to the means by which the Liquor Code is enforced.
“I think we can continue to make some positive inroads with some strengthening of deterrence without any broad-based systematic changes – there are some opportunities for us legislatively to increase the deterrence, which will hopefully end this,” he said.
“If the deterrence is enough, then the businesses have a decision to make: they can either comply with the law…or they can be suspended with no revenue stream coming in to support their business, or they can be revocated and be out of business.”
However, with only 19 active liquor control enforcement officers in the Philadelphia area, others felt as though having more manpower bringing teeth to the provisions of the Liquor Code would help stop the continued operation of Stop & Go stores.
That being the case, they did not shy away from saying that utilizing auditors and/or streamlining the license suspension or revocation process, as previously included in the Fiscal Code bill, would be a helpful tool.
“I think it does serve to help alleviate the issue,” said Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board chief counsel Rodrigo Diaz. “If they are not meeting those basic licensing issues, it would be nice to have the power to make them do that. Obviously, the system that we have isn’t working and they’re continuing to operate in a way that’s not conducive to a good community and one the people want to live in.”
Additionally, representatives from the Liquor Control Board noted a recent regulatory change that would allow them to take into consideration citations from local officials or law enforcement or conviction from having an illegal gaming terminal as a cause for non-renewal when a licensee has to renew their liquor license.
They also noted current nuisance bar laws could be utilized by local law enforcement or citizens to take action against these establishments in court.
However, they added, those remedies either lack immediacy or have a high burden of proof.
As such, McIlhinney stated he will be seeking to implement a multi-pronged approach, including deterrence measures, increased enforcement personnel with the use of auditors and education in terms of existing remedies as he works to insert new enforcement language into upcoming budget-related legislation likely to pass with the conclusion of budget-balancing revenue talks.
“Obviously, no one single thing is going to happen, but an awareness that it’s a problem and that we need to take action, we need to get the different agencies to get together to fix the problem, is the first step to fix the problem,” he said.
“It’s not one approach that’s going to solve this.”
In order to get a better feel for the problem, Sen. McIlhinney is planning to go to Sen. Street’s district this Friday to tour local Stop & Go locations as the lawmakers work together to develop the upcoming proposal.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg Bureau Chief of The PLS Reporter, a news website dedicated to covering Pennsylvania’s government.