Senate includes version of Stop & Go enforcement reform as part of revenue package

Senate includes version of Stop & Go enforcement reform as part of revenue package

Author: Jason Gottesman/Tuesday, August 1, 2017/Categories: News and Views

Major legislation in the state General Assembly is often the product of compromise and deal-making and the revenue package the Senate moved along last week was no exception.


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


By way of background, so-called stop and go locations technically operate within the law by holding the appropriate restaurant license to serve alcohol. The establishments are nicknamed “stop-and-go” due to their status appearing as a convenience store or deli that also sells beer and liquor—sometimes in quantities as low as a single shot—often times 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.


While an issue statewide, they are 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 Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) helped lift through the House a proposal that would crackdown on these “nuisance establishments” by creating “saturated nuisance markets,” like areas within 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.


That proposal, currently in the form of House Bill 1547, is sitting in the Senate Law and Justice Committee awaiting for action by committee Chairman Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks) who, earlier this summer, said he was working on the legislation with Rep. Harris and planned to investigate the stop-and-go issues more in-depth in a tour of areas affected by these establishments.


While Sen. McIlhinney was eyeing a fall timeline for the start of the legislative process in the Senate on trying to work through the process of advancing Rep. 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 kitchen-sink style budget implementation bill.


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


The Senate approach to increasing stop and 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 an already existing means of inspection: the use of Liquor Control Board auditors.


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


However, under the new Senate approach, if an inspection by a 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.


Sen. Street said this version of stop and go enforcement is “fair” and done in a way that does not unduly burden good businesses.


“We just have enforcement so that the bad operators can be dealt with,” he said. “I think it was both 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 and we can allow the State Police to focus on more closely-related law enforcement issues.”


According to Sen. 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 and we needed to get them addressed and we now have some more significant teeth to address the issue,” he said.


“If you are in a neighborhood, and you have one of these establishments, they just run roughshod over the community. They operate in opposition to what the community needs and they don’t comply with the rules and regulations and there’s really been no means to shut them down; now we have the means.”


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


However, Sen. Street did add that Rep. Harris’s proposal was a good strike at the heart of the issue, but the Senate’s take on the matter—in his opinion—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.”


The House is currently reviewing the various proposals contained in the Senate-passed revenue package and currently has no immediate timetable for when they might consider some or all of the components.