HARRISBURG - All he wanted to do, Mike Turzai recalled Monday, was buy a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream for his Irish mother on St. Pattrick's Day.

But when Turzai walked into a state wine and liquor store in a suburb of Pittsburgh, the clerks told him they were sold out.

"They looked at me and said, 'Uh, are you crazy? Coming in here when you know it's St. Patrick's Day?' And I left thinking, 'What am I missing here? Don't you know it's St. Patrick's Day?' "

Thus it was, about 20 years ago, that Turzai first got to thinking about privatizing the liquor stores, he told an audience of about 150 people at a debate here Monday. And now that he is House Majority Leader Turzai, he intends to do something about it.

Turzai is leading the push in the legislature to sell the state's 620 stores and get Pennsylvania out of the retail alcohol business. Gov. Corbett is behind him, having campaigned heavily last year on the issue.

But Corbett did not include a privatization plan in his budget blueprint for the next fiscal year, as had been widely expected. There is also no proposed bill in black and white. Anti-privatization forces are taking advantage of the lull to try to kill the idea.

Monday's debate, staged at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology and sponsored by the Harrisburg Patriot-News, was between Turzai (R., Allegheny) and Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.).

Evans - who has kept his profile notably low since losing his powerful Appropriations Committee chairmanship late last year - emerged in the debate as the defender of the status quo.

His argument: If you think the Liquor Control Board needs fixing, then pass legislation to make it better. Don't do away with a system set up to sell alcohol in a socially responsible way and kick any profits straight into the state's coffers.

"Michael Jackson talked about 'the man in the mirror,' " Evans countered. "That's us, that's all of us in the General Assembly. ... They [the LCB] cannot operate independent of the changes we allow.

"You have to strike a balance," he added. "The public wants a balance. We have a responsibility to the public welfare. We should never diminish that aspect of it."

Another aspect of the long-running arguments over proposals to sell off the stores is the job security of thousands of clerks. In Monday's audience was Wendell Young IV, who heads the union representing them.

The arguments from both sides are familiar. There have been stabs at privatization dating back decades, and the LCB has not sat idly by. In recent years especially, it has mounted an aggressive campaign to save itself by trying to increase selection and offer better service, among other things.

Despite those efforts, the agency remains Target No. 1 for many consumers who seems to love nothing more than to hate the state system. Poll after poll has shown that the majority of Pennsylvanians wouldn't bat an eyelash if the stores were auctioned off. In fact, they'd prefer it.

Turzai on Monday tried to capitalize on that sentiment, and to push back on the other argument mounted by the anti-privatization camp: that the state system reaps hundreds of millions in taxes and profits for the state each year.

The Republican leader argued that for an agency doing $1.6 billion in annual sales, the LCB is only making a profit of "maybe $50 million," and is using reserves to make its payment to the general fund. This year, the agency is kicking $105 million in profits into the treasury.

Joe Conti, the LCB's chief executive officer, countered that liquor sales have increased by almost 4 percent in the last four years. And though he acknowledged the agency's profit this year will teeter around $50 million, he said the board will have no trouble making its $105 million transfer to state coffers on time.

Turzai was unmoved. He promised to introduce an LCB privatization bill as soon an impact study, commissioned by the Corbett administration, is complete. That is expected by summer, he said.

"For goodness' sake, let's move into the 21st century," Turzai said. "This is a no-brainer."

Or perhaps, a no-Baileys.

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.