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4 a.m. last call in Philly: Why it could happen this time… maybe

Save for a few private clubs or bars that illegally operate later than they’re supposed to, the taps across Philly stop flowing at 2 a.m. — and now Rep. Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat, is pushing a new plan change that across the state.

This fight has been brought up before. Mayoral candidates Doug Oliver and Nelson Diaz have both proposed fighting to allow bars to stay open later to fund schools (for the children!). And a 2012 proposal by Philadelphia Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown to keep bars open until 3 a.m. drew major criticism from neighborhood associations. In conjunction with her city proposal, state Rep. Vanessa Brown had introduced legislation that would have needed to pass to allow for Philadelphia to push last call later.

That’s a lot of moving parts, and the plan never pushed through. But Harris thinks the time is now.

“We’re having a conversation over privatizing wine and spirits and control of liquor in PA or to modernize it,” he said. “For me, this puts something else on the table, to be a part of the package to modernize our archaic laws and modernize how we do things.”

As part of a number of measures being introduced by Democrats to modernize the state liquor system (AKA not sell it off), Harris explained to Billy Penn how his “extended use permit” proposal would actually work if passed:

First, the bar or restaurant would already have to have a liquor license and be in good standing, meaning they’re up on their taxes and don’t have excessive violations with the Liquor Control Board.

After the bar applies for an extended use permit to stay open until 4 a.m., it’ll fall on the municipality (read: City Council in Philly; township boards of supervisors in the ‘burbs, etc.) to hold a public hearing and determine whether the permit will be granted. This power in the hands of the municipalities also means any town can deny extended use permits entirely.

There’s a catch: Only establishments in “designated entertainment zones” would be granted permits to stay open until 4 a.m. Harris points to bars lining Delaware Avenue as an area that could be an entertainment zone, and says the hours there would draw people away from neighborhood bars earlier. But bars in residential areas won’t be granted permits.

In order to have an extended permit, the legislation would charge a business 10 percent of the yearly fee it pays to have a liquor license. Of that, half would go to the municipality and half would go to the State Stores Fund.

“This is a targeted approach to economic development,” he said. “You take an underdeveloped industrial area and, because of this, you now can re-purpose that area and create an entertainment zone where people can enjoy themselves and nightlife.”

It’s hard to say what type of support Harris could see for the bill that has yet to be formally introduced. House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said he hasn’t heard from members of the caucus on whether or not they’d support or oppose the measure specifically, but said he anticipates it will be fully vetted in committee.

While Republicans are still for privatizing the state’s liquor system entirely, Gov. Tom Wolf has said he’d veto a bill doing so. Some Republican leaders have indicated they’re in favor of passing piecemeal legislation that would modernize the system, such as extending liquor store hours and connecting them to grocery stores.

The proposal targets vast millennial populations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and Harris said his hope is that small changes like this can turn around brain drain and keep college students in the cities after they graduate.

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