The Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association sat down with Sen. Pat. Stefano recently to learn more about his perspective on the liquor industry, including Act 39 and the current political landscape. Sen. Stefano is chair of the Senate Law & Justice Committee. He serves the 32nd District including Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland counties.
PLBTA: Thinking back to your first elected position, what motivated you to run for public office?
PS: As the owner of a small business, I’m the 3rd generation of my family’s printing company, I have been involved in my community and involved in groups like our local Chamber of Commerce and NFIB for many years. In those groups we followed our legislators’ votes on issues that were important to small businesses. I would send my letters on important issues and get form letters back. It became clear to me that my representation wasn’t actually listening to me. I was brought up that as a small business we should always give back to our communities and when this opportunity came I saw it as a perfect opportunity to give back to the community which has been so good to me and my family.
PLBTA: What made you particularly interested in chairing the Senate Law & Justice Committee?
PS: Alcohol policy is a place where I think the interests of small businesses really comes up against the government. Alcohol is a regulated industry and an industry that we rely on to provide us nearly 1 billion dollars in tax revenue. I wanted to ensure that our regulations and the management of our Liquor Control Board is being done in a way that is conducive to small businesses being able to flourish. As a senator from a rural district I am also very concerned about access and providing the service that our constituents expect. I also am extremely concerned about police matters and how it relates to our commonwealth, particularly in rural areas.
PLBTA: Our Members are mostly Mom-and-Pop operations. When they look around their hometowns, they can see that the local hardware store has closed, the independent doctor was bought out by a hospital chain, and the neighborhood grocery store is no more. They worry that their industry is next. Do you ever worry about small businesses going away?
PS: I do and I don’t. Of course, I see the trend towards national chains and am concerned that they spell the end of small businesses. However, I am a firm believer in the entrepreneurial spirit. I think that our small businesses are adapting to this trend and can provide the personal service and quality product that can overcome the trend towards national chains.
PLBTA: Do you have an agenda for the Law & Justice Committee this legislative session? Are there issues that you see as needing change in the system to make it more workable or efficient?
PS: I think that we need to ensure that the sectors of the alcohol industry have parity. We have seen tremendous success with the expansion of wine and beer and I think the next logical step is to look towards creating convenience for our spirits products as well. In the same sense I want to ensure that our PA based small businesses, who employs thousands in our commonwealth, are given the tools and flexibility they need to thrive.
PLBTA: Passage of Act 39 forced many changes in the retail liquor industry, with unintended consequences for many licensees. Taverns are facing more competition than ever before. Do you anticipate the Law & Justice Committee looking at the impacts of Act 39, and making any changes to help level the playing field for all licensees?
PS: One of the things I have learned about this area of the law is that when you change one thing it effects everyone in the industry. I am interested in hearing more about these concerns and working with licensees to either understand the intent of the law if it is something that does not have the necessary support to be changed and looking at ways to improve the overall business climate for all licensees.
PLBTA: One result of Act 39 has been delays in timely beer deliveries due to the expansion and universal availability of beer at large retailers and convenience stores, which were not in the beer business prior to the Act. At times, bar owners find themselves out of supplies, but current law doesn’t allow tavern owners to pick up beer when they are short through no fault of their own. Would you support legislation that would allow tavern owners to pick up limited amounts of brewed and malt beverages when they run out?
PS: I have been hearing a lot about the changes in the franchise law and understand that different areas are experiencing this law in different ways. I am interested in looking into this concept while ensuring that the products that are available to our consumers are the freshest and safest products available.
PLBTA: Bar owners often pay servers and bartenders through the wage-tip structure that guarantees minimum wage through a combination of a tavern hourly wage and tips. They often can make more … $15, $20, $25 per hour. This structure helps the small business and the employee. Governor Wolf wants to change minimum wage rules, possibly going as high as $15/hour and setting tipped minimum wages at 75% of the overall minimum. Some worry that patrons will feel tipping is not necessary due to a higher wage. If this were to happen, it may actually cause servers and bartenders to make less. How do you feel about the wage-tip structure?
PS: I think the discussion around minimum wage is made to seem so simple. People need to make more therefore we should raise the wage and it will just happen. Unfortunately, if a large jump in the wage would occur it could have long ranging unintended consequences ranging from layoffs, to increase consumer prices to the scenario that you lay out in your question. That is why I wish the federal government would be leading the way on this so that all states were operating on the same level. I think this discussion needs to be handled with great caution and any changes need to be incremental and over time to allow everyone to adjust properly.
PLBTA: Everyone has their favorite restaurant, bar, or tavern. These establishments can be great places to gather with friends and family. Without specifically naming your favorite, what makes it so special that you keep going back? What stands out about it?
PS: I think these local establishments build a sense of togetherness and help make our communities stronger. These employees and business owners don’t just work in our community, they are a part of it. Anytime I’m at a youth sporting event chances are there are a few teams sponsored by a restaurant, bar or tavern. When I go to our community theater or a fundraiser for a nonprofit, you have ads in the program or are donating food or beverages. You usually are the first to be asked to support something and the first to step up and do so. I really prefer to support those kinds of establishments. Not to mention, the wings at my favorite establishment can’t be beat.
The above Q&A was republished from the July edition of Pennsylvania Observer, the official magazine of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association.