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Senator Fontana joined local dignitaries and officials from Scalo Solar Solutions for the ribbon cutting on their demonstration project that provides for a new approach to economic development. The Senator supported the application for grant funding to the PA Energy Development Authority and was proud to be on hand for the ribbon cutting. This project will result in $60 million in potential sales over the next five years, more than $6 million in sales and income tax revenues and 300 new job opportunities - all while being green and sustainable.

Privatization Proposal

This past Wednesday, the House Liquor Control Committee held a hearing on House Bill 11 (HB 11), legislation being introduced by Rep. Mike Turzai to privatize the state liquor system. Although the committee is expected to hold at least two more hearings on this issue, the only individual testifying was Rep. Turzai. In this case, that seems appropriate because the legislation has yet to be introduced and a draft was just provided to the members of the committee at the hearing. While the Representative has spoken about the legislation for months, and held a press conference on July 13th announcing its introduction, it appears as if the bill is still not ready.

According to materials that Rep. Turzai provided, the bill will provide for the selling off of PA Liquor Control Board (PLCB) wholesale and retail operations. A total of 1,250 retail licenses will be auctioned off to the highest responsible bidder with a reserve price based upon the fair market value (there are currently 621 state retail stores). The licenses will be divided into two categories – Class-A and Class-B. A Class-A license will include retail outlets with 15,000 or more square feet of retail space and at least 600 linear feet of shelf space. Most typically, these licenses will be held by grocery stores and “big box” retail outlets. Class-B licenses will include retail outlets with less than 15,000 square feet of space. Most typically, these licenses will be held by independent retailers and will be allocated by the Department of General Services (DGS) and PLCB based on population densities and market need.

Wholesale licenses will be transferred to PA residents or PA business entities based on a contractual relationship between manufacturers/importers and a wholesaler to be the exclusive wholesaler for their products within the state. The bill will also include anti-monopoly provisions and establish a biennial license renewal fee and a transfer of license fee comparable to other licenses issued by the PLCB. Additionally, the bill will eliminate the current 30% PLCB mark-up, the 18% Johnstown Flood Tax, the $1.50 per bottle handling fee and would replace those with a “gallonage tax” instead.

As is normally the case, I would expect that HB 11 will very well undergo several changes before it comes to the Senate for consideration. As a member of the Senate Law & Justice Committee, I look forward to hearings on this legislation and several others that have been proposed to change the way liquor is handled in the Commonwealth, including direct shipment of wine.

I do have concerns with the proposal as I understand it - including what will happen to the current employees (unemployment is high enough in our state; if these individuals lose their jobs, there will be a further cost to the Commonwealth through unemployment and state benefits that they may need to take advantage of). There are 14 store locations and 2 kiosks in the 42nd Senatorial District, employing 102 people on a full-time, part-time or seasonal basis. The Turzai summary states that employment support would be provided by providing tax credits for employers who hire displaced employees, tuition assistance for employees’ to further their education or re-train for a new career, and a preferential leg up in applying for other civil service positions in the Commonwealth.

Did You Know…

Did you know that the PLCB has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to minors? In 2010, store employees carded nearly one million suspected minors statewide. In addition, the PLCB transferred more than $20 million last year to the PA State Police for liquor law enforcement, and awards grants to organizations to help combat underage and dangerous drinking.

I also have concerns about what the recurring revenue will be to the Commonwealth (the sale will result in a one-time cash influx) and whether there will be real variety and choice in a consumer-driven, supply and demand system. I also believe that we should consider other options that have been raised such as direct wine shipping and other proposals as part of an overhaul of our liquor system.

This isn’t a partisan issue. Senator Joe Scarnati, President Pro Tem of the Senate and a Republican from Warren County also expressed concerns in recent interviews. He was quoted as saying, “Before you sell a business, you get the best bottom line you can, and I'm not so sure that we in Pennsylvania have yet got the best bottom line out of our liquor system that we can. The liquor system is worth what somebody is willing to pay for it, and they're going to pay for it based upon how much they can make." Sen. Scarnati believes that there are other ways to boost sales and increase competition and also expressed concerns about whether any private bidders would be interested in the stores that serve rural towns.

Clearly, there is much to be answered in this process – and more to learn. I am going to remain open-minded about the proposal and look carefully at the pros and cons that there are in each opportunity. We can also learn more by looking at other states. Other than Pennsylvania, only three other states have state-run retail and wholesale. In the past 20 years, only one state has privatized its retail operations, West Virginia, which sold its retail stores in 1990 but continues to control wholesale sales. The state also re-licenses the retail sale every 10 years, experiencing a revenue spike in those fiscal years.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts on this and other issues that are of interest and importance to you and encourage you to contact me.

Preparing for Kindergarten

Parents with children entering kindergarten this fall are invited to bring their kids to a special event designed to help them make the transition and celebrate the milestone. The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is hosting Kindergarten!...Here I Come! on Saturday, August 13th from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The event will feature activities for kids and provide valuable information for parents/caregivers, including art projects, story times, an appearance by the Ready Freddy school readiness mascot, opportunities to sit on a real school bus, and a chance to meet local child development experts. Children will also receive a free book and “Class of 2024” t-shirt. This event is free to every child entering kindergarten and one adult. Registration is not required. For more information, visit KindergartenHereICome.org or call 412-322-5058.

Health Exchange Forum

The public is invited to share their thoughts and opinions on health insurance exchanges, a key component of the federal health care reform, during a special forum being held next week. The forum is scheduled for Tuesday, August 9th at the Doubletree Hotel Pittsburgh/Monroeville Convention Center (101 Mall Blvd., Monroeville) from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. This is one of three forums being held across the state as the Insurance Department explores exchange options for health care consumers and stakeholders.

A health insurance exchange is a competitive marketplace where consumers and small businesses can shop for health insurance. As part of the Affordable Care Act, states are required to have an exchange in place by 2014. States can either develop their own exchanges, or default to the federal government.

The public can comment on the process in person, or submit comments electronically. The Insurance Department is especially interested in hearing your input on whether the state should establish an exchange or defer to the federal government’s exchange, how and who should operate an exchange, and what functions it should provide and to whom. Register today and find out more about the forum on the Insurance Department’s website.

In the Meantime…

PA Fair CareUntil the exchange is up and running, uninsured adults with pre-existing conditions are encouraged to apply for PA Fair Care – a temporary plan providing transitional insurance coverage until federal health care reform takes effect in 2014. Any one of my offices can provide you with an application, or you can visit the PA Fair Care website. To be eligible, individuals must be a PA resident, have a pre-existing health condition and have been uninsured for the past six months. The program has a monthly premium of $283, plus a $1,000 annual deductible and co-pays.

Special Art Event Tomorrow

Go on a Wild Art Crawl with the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation (MWCDC). The event will be held tomorrow evening, August 3rd, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The crawl gets started at the MWCDC office (301 Shiloh Street), and takes participants on a stroll to see art created at this year’s Wild Art Wild Trails festival. Featured are works of art that were uniquely created from dumpsite trash. Drinks, appetizers and sweet treats will be offered. To RSVP, contact khunninen@mwcdc.org or 412-481-3220, extension 200.

Around the District

Following is a list of just a few of the activities going on in the district this coming week. If you have an event that you’d like to have highlighted, please e-mail the details.

All Month Hollywood Theatre August Schedule

Tuesday, August 2nd

7:00 p.m. Beechview Annual Night Out Against Crime Party
Parking Lot at Corner of Broadway & Beechview Avenues

Wednesday, August 3rd

Through 8/31 Coraopolis Library Book Sale
Coraopolis Memorial Library
12:15 p.m. Singer/Songwriter Midge Cricket Outdoor Concert
Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh
8:30 p.m. Bellevue Movie in the Park – “Yogi Bear”
Sponsored by Allegheny General Hospital Suburban Campus
Bayne Park

Thursday, August 4th

10:00 a.m. Thursday in the Square – Market Square
Farmer’s Market, Live Music & Plenty of Surprises
Sponsored by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership
6:30 p.m. Scott Township Snacks Around the World – Kids 5 and Up
Scott Township Public Library
Event is Free, but Pre-Registration Required: 412-429-5380

Friday, August 5th

10:00 a.m. KidsPlay – Market Square
Stories, Crafts and Special Guests
Sponsored by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership
6:00 p.m. Factory 14: Who Are You – Mattress Factory
Teenage Artist Display, Performance & Story of Summer Art Course
Free Admission

Saturday, August 6th

9:00 a.m. Home Depot Kid’s Workshop – Pencil Box
4000 Oxford Drive, Bethel Park 15102
9:30 a.m. Brookline Friends of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Monthly Meeting
708 Brookline Boulevard, Pittsburgh 15226
10:00 a.m. Dormont Tyke Hike – Introduction to Family Camping
Dormont Recreation Center, 1801 Dormont Avenue, Pittsburgh 15216
Sponsored by Dormont Recreation Board, REI and Sterling Yoga
Presented by Venture Outdoors
6:00 p.m. Green Tree Cookout & Movie at the Pool – “Cats & Dogs 2”
Sponsored by the Green Tree Rotary
Wilson Pool

Sunday, August 7th

10:00 a.m. Family Guided Nature Walks – Scott Conservancy Trail
Jewish Community Center, 345 Kane Boulevard, Pittsburgh 15243

Fontana Fact

The Pittsburgh Police Motorcycle unit is in its second century of service. The Pittsburgh Police began its motorcycle unit in 1909 with the purchase of five Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Each officer in the unit has a motorcycle assigned to him, and is responsible for the upkeep of the bike. The officers ride year-round, including in harsh winter conditions with the use of sidecars.

Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana