It’s been nearly three weeks since legislation designed to crack down on so-called stop-and-go establishments overwhelmingly passed the House and efforts are already underway in the Senate to produce a bill that can get to the governor’s desk.
The legislation, House Bill 1547, prime sponsored by Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia), passed the House in late June by a vote of 191-6.
While technically operating within the law by holding the appropriate restaurant license to serve 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 – that is often times consumed on premises or immediately outside the store.
These businesses 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 provisions of HB1547 seek to take on the issues by creating “saturated nuisance markets,” like areas within the city of Philadelphia, that would have stricter standards on requirements like seating and food sales of stop-and-go establishments, many of which are merely bars masquerading as convenience stores.
One of the most vocal sponsors of the legislation in trying to move the effort forward in the Senate is Rep. Harris, who said Monday that he has faith that the House-passed legislation will continue to make headway in that chamber.
“I do believe there is a future for this legislation in the Senate, even if it’s not the exact bill we sent over,” he said, noting he’s already had conversations with Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks) who now has oversight of the legislation.
According to Harris, the need for the legislation comes down to the quality-of-life issues that surround the negative aspects of nuisance stop-and-go establishments.
“There’s public intoxication and violence going on in and around these establishments,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of loopholes in the law, which is why we need to strengthen it and give communities the power to address the issue.”
In order to make these issues readily apparent to McIlhinney, and with an eye toward pushing for Senate action on the bill, Rep. Harris invited him and several other interested members to tour Philadelphia to highlight the pervasiveness of the issue.
Monday, McIlhinney said he would take Harris up on that offer as soon as issues related to the state budget are resolved.
“I know (the stop-and-go issue) has been around for a while and I’d like to address it,” he said.
That being the case, however, he did state he is a little hesitant to move forward with the legislation in its current form.
“I think there’s better ways,” he said, “To start designating nuisance ZIP codes is kind of like designating failing school districts: nobody wants to live in failing school district, nobody wants to live in a nuisance ZIP code.”
Meanwhile, he is looking at a couple of different ways to help beef up enforcement of the current liquor laws that are being skirted by these alleged nuisance establishments.
“There are other ways to get enforcement in line and to get rid of the bad actors if they are going to ignore current liquor laws and what it took for them to get licenses in the first place,” he said. “It’s an issue – I plan to address it either with stepped-up enforcement through the LCB or there could possibly be some future language changes in legislation if we feel like we can’t address it. But it certainly is a problem.”
McIlhinney also did not rule out the possibility of legalizing some more local enforcement of the state liquor laws.
He added while he understands the frustration on behalf of members of the Philadelphia delegation, the desire for any relief from the situation does not necessarily equate to good relief, particularly when the issue exists and has implications outside of Philadelphia.
With the Legislature currently deadlocked in trying to figure out how to solve current outstanding issues relating to the state budget, the stop-and-go legislation is facing an uncertain timeline.
That being said, McIlhinney stated that as soon as budget-related issues become resolved, he plans to take that trip to Philadelphia and continue to work on a compromise proposal that can run hopefully sometime shortly after the Legislature returns from its summer break in September.
Harris emphasized that he will work with McIlhinney over the summer to hammer out language that is acceptable to both sides of the equation.
“It’s important to crack down on stop-and-go’s in Philadelphia – and on nuisance establishments throughout Pennsylvania,” he said. “There are a number of members who want to see something happen with the legislation.”
Rep. Bullock struck a pragmatically hopeful note on the difficulty of getting the bill moving at the same time as the ongoing budget crisis. “HB1547 gives residents and local enforcement agencies additional tools to address nuisance stop and go businesses in their communities,” she said via email. “It is the culmination of information we received from enforcement agencies and residents after a series of informational hearings held by the Philadelphia Delegation throughout the city. While I am hopeful that the Senate will understand the challenges our communities face with these businesses and will also move this legislation forward, Harrisburg is focused on the budget right now, and rightfully so. If the bill isn’t advanced during the budget negotiations, I am optimistic that it will be on the Senate’s agenda in the fall.”
While the legislation is awaiting state action, some at the local government level in Philadelphia are trying to take matters into their own hands.
Earlier this year, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, along with Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, introduced a Bill in city council to amend the City’s Health Code aimed at stop-and-go locations by allowing their continued restaurant license to be contingent upon compliance with city health codes.
Bill No. 170429 also updates the city Health Code to allow the city’s Department of Health to develop more stringent regulations concerning on-site food, actual occupancy levels, the sale of alcoholic beverages, and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Failure to abide by these regulations, according to the proposal, could jeopardize the establishment’s continued possession of a restaurant operating license and, simultaneously, impact their ability to sell alcoholic beverages.
That proposal, introduced in May, currently awaits action by City Council’s Committee on Public Health and Human Services.