Stop-&-Go Bill Advances

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PHILA. LEGISLATORS (like Councilwoman Cindy Bass here at an in-store protest earlier this summer) have long pressed for tougher state controls of “stop-&-go” corner establishments that violate liquor laws and attract undesirables. State Rep. Jordan Harris is advancing a bill in the State House of Representatives to do just that.

Major legislation in the General Assembly is often the product of compromise and deal-making. The Senate’s latest revenue package was no exception.

However, while various interest groups and stakeholders are scoffing at individual portions of the five budget-related implementation bills that will cumulatively provide for nearly $2.1 billion in funding for the state budget, those hoping to see some movement on reforming “stop-&-go” enforcement might have their wishes answered in a portion of the Fiscal Code aimed at addressing the issue.

A stop-&-go technically operates within the law by holding the appropriate restaurant license to serve alcohol. The name comes from its unusual (for Pennsylvania) business model of a convenience store that also sells beer and liquor – sometimes in quantities as low as a single shot – oftentimes consumed on premises or immediately outside the store.

Stop-&-go’s 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 alcohol and tobacco sales to minors.

While an issue statewide, these establishments are most prevalent in Philadelphia, where the city’s state legislative delegation has used the first half of the 2017-2018 legislative term to hold hearings in Philadelphia on the issue.

As a result of those hearings, a trio of House members led by State Rep. Jordan Harris (D-S. Phila.) helped lift through the House a proposal that would crack down on these “nuisance establishments,” many of which are merely bars masquerading as convenience stores, by creating “saturated nuisance markets” that would institute heightened standards for things like seating requirements and food sales.

That proposal, currently in the form of HB 1547, is sitting in the Senate Law & Justice Committee awaiting action by committee Chairman Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks) who, earlier this summer, said he was working on the legislation with Harris.

While McIlhinney was eyeing a fall timeline for the start of the Senate legislative process of advancing Harris’s legislation, some were not so keen to wait.

In legislation added to the Fiscal Code portion of the revenue package passed by the Senate last week and currently being reviewed by the House, Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) and Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) were successful in getting stop-and-go enforcement reform language inserted into the budget implementation bill.

“The language we got … addresses so many of the concerns we have that these establishments have been operating outside the confines of the law – we just didn’t have the appropriate enforcement tools,” Street said when the legislation passed the Senate last Thursday.

The Senate approach to increasing stop-&-go enforcement differs widely from the House legislation.

Unlike the House’s version that declared whole areas off-limits, the Senate language takes the approach of stepping up enforcement through use of Liquor Control Board auditors.

Currently, only the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Enforcement can investigate and start the process of suspending the license of a nuisance establishment.

However, under the new Senate approach, if an inspection by an LCB employee finds that a license holder does not meet a requirement for licensure or meet one of the board’s regulations that would hold the licensee ineligible for the license, the board has the power to suspend the license until the infraction is corrected. The legislation also changes how suspension appeals are handled.

Street said this version of stop-&-go enforcement is “fair” and done in a way that does not unduly burden businesses following the letter and spirit of the law.

“We just have enforcement so that the bad operators can be dealt with,” he said. “I think it was a good step forward in terms of addressing the stop-and-go issue, but also a good step forward in terms of probably a more appropriate use of state resources in that we are using auditors to address what are really audit violations. We can allow the State Police to focus on more closely related law enforcement issues.”

According to Hughes, the legislation, which he called “a big win for Philadelphia,” will go a long way toward addressing a quality of life issue for the people of Philadelphia.

“These places are nuisance bars – we’ve had limited ability to address them – and they are really a hazard in our community. We needed to get them addressed and we now have some more significant teeth to address the issue,” he said.

Street added that Harris’s proposal was a good strike at the heart of the issue, but that in his opinion, the Senate’s take on the matter is better.

“You may have instances in which you have a lawful bar operating in the same area as a bad stop-and-go,” he said. “We don’t want to hit them both.”

Harris did not return a request for comment for this article.

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