Harrisburg – The House Liquor Control Committee Tuesday afternoon unanimously reported to the full House legislation that is designed to address issues related to “stop-and-go” stores in Philadelphia.
While technically legal holders of restaurant or R-licenses that allow them to sell alcohol, the establishments are nicknamed “stop-and-go” due to their status as a convenience store or deli that also sells beer and liquor – sometimes in quantities as low as a single shot – oftentimes consumed on premises or immediately outside the store.
They are widely known to operate on the fringes of the law or blatantly outside of it and have also been accused of violating areas of state law in terms of tobacco sales and alcohol and tobacco sales to minors.
The legislation advanced by the committee, House Bill 1547, is prime-sponsored by Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) as well as Representatives Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) and Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia).
“In many of our communities across Philadelphia – and I’ve heard other stories from across the commonwealth – these bad actors quite honestly give a bad name to all of the good operators in our commonwealth,” said Harris after Tuesday’s committee vote.
“In these neighborhoods, what you have is operators skirting the law and by skirting the law they are creating nuisance in our communities. They are selling shots, they’re not necessarily carding and it becomes a tremendous quality of life issue for the residents of Philadelphia and across the commonwealth.”
The legislation considered in committee was the product of a number of discussions dating back to earlier this spring and has had the input from a number of members from the Philadelphia delegation who continue to hold hearings and public meetings on the issue throughout the city.
According to delegation chairman Rep. Maria Donatucci (D-Philadelphia), the issue with the stop-and-go liquor sales is not that they are operating without proper authority but that they do not live up to the requirements that their liquor license demands.
“The issue, as we try to explain to everybody, is they aren’t illegal – they have an R-license – but with an R-license you are required to have seating for 30 (people) and a lot of these establishments, they have chairs stacked, they have tables stacked, so they have seating for 30,” she said.
She also noted the food requirement for these license-holders also goes lacking, with legal precedent upholding the validity of having available frozen hot dogs or ramen noodle sales as meeting the food-sales requirement.
“That’s the problem,” said Donatucci. “They’re manipulating the system.”
The provisions of House Bill 1547 seek to take on these issues directly by creating “saturated nuisance markets,” like the city of Philadelphia, that would have heightened standards for things like seating requirements and food sales in order to require a legitimization of the operation of stop-and-go establishments, many of which are merely bars masquerading as convenience stores.
While the legislation gives those tasked with enforcing state liquor laws more to look at when seeking to crack down on stop-and-go locations, Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D-Philadelphia) also noted the lack of enforcement personnel allows these locations to currently operate with impunity.
Pennsylvania’s liquor laws can only be enforced by the Liquor Control Enforcement bureau within the Pennsylvania State Police.
“They don’t have enough officers; there’s 22 liquor enforcement officers for Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia County and there’s no way you can enforce that,” she said. “In Philadelphia County, we have 1,700 license total…so that’s an impossibility to do anything about that.”
Though bolstering enforcement numbers is not addressed in House Bill 1547, the legislation as it currently stands is likely to not be its final form.
Also at play in the discussion is the impact that the legalization of video gaming terminals might have on R-license holders and stop-and-go locations. Ostensibly, under House-passed gaming expansion legislation, stop-and-go locations would be eligible to purchase the terminal-based gambling machines for use in their establishments.
“It will not only devastate the community, it will devastate the city of Philadelphia, period,” Youngblood said of the current form of gaming expansion legislation.
House Republican Caucus spokesperson Steve Miskin said Tuesday that the stop-and-go issue is not yet at the top tier of June priorities; however, all parties involved called the legislation a good first step toward a final product.
In fact, an amendment added to the legislation in committee by Donatucci would call for a study of the saturation markets every two years to determine the efficacy of continued heightened standards.
As lawmakers look to sit down with stakeholders to craft a bill that they hope separate out the bad actors from reputable establishments, members of the Philadelphia delegation will continue to hold hearings and vetting proposals from other members; an exercise that will likely ramp up again after the state legislature concludes its budget process.
“I would like to see us come back and really address this in the fall so we can have a decent bill and not hurrying and getting something through that has a lot of flaws that we find out doesn’t have a lot of teeth and doesn’t really do anything,” Youngblood stated.