THE GOVERNOR STEPPED UP to the podium and assured Pennsylvanians that his bold plan to privatize liquor stores was "certain to offer greater variety, better prices, more convenient hours and locations . . . and effective and helpful service."

That happened on Jan. 28 - in 1981. The governor was Richard Thornburgh. Phillies fans were still hung over from the team's first championship, Iran had freed the U.S. hostages eight days earlier, and the No. 1 song was by the just-murdered John Lennon, "(Just Like) Starting Over."

Just like starting over, Gov. Corbett echoed those ancient remarks on Wednesday, telling citizens, "I want Pennsylvanians to enjoy the same convenience that virtually every other American today has."

Corbett's plan - which aims to not only make buying liquor a better and cheaper experience but also to pump $1 billion in fresh cash into the state's ailing school districts - follows the same well-worn, thicket-laden path tried by the last two elected GOP governors, Thornburgh and Tom Ridge.

Last October, a statewide Inquirer poll found that voters support privatizing the state's liquor sales by a nearly 2-1 margin, 55 percent to 28 percent. So why does it never happen?

In the past, shallow public support ran into a phalanx of committed opponents - unionized state employees worried about their jobs and politically obdurate Democrats.

But there's also been opposition from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and simpatico conservative lawmakers who note that more convenient and lower-priced booze could put more drunks on the road, and impose a heavy social cost.

So what's different this time? With education funding under stress, Corbett believes that taking the extra money from the sale of licenses - to supermarkets and other retail outlets, as well as "enhanced" licenses that would let some existing beer distributors sell harder booze, wine and six-packs of beer - and giving it to school districts as block grants is a game-changer.

"Breaking up Pennsylvania's liquor monopoly gives us a unique opportunity to invest more dollars where we need them most - in our children and their future," Corbett said.

On Tuesday, the top-ranked senator, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County, didn't rule out privatization but threw some cold water on Corbett's push - grousing he wouldn't want a vote tied to the broader issue of statewide school funding.

"That's Washington-style politics, and we don't need that," Scarnati said at a Harrisburg news conference. What's more, he wants a closer look at modernizing the existing state-store system, which he says could bring in an extra $75 million to $100 million a year, and he fretted that private bidders for stores wouldn't come to his rural district.

Within minutes of Corbett's announcement, Philadelphia Democratic state Sen. Christine Tartaglione issued a statement charging that "after gutting staffing for unemployment call centers, Gov. Corbett's plans for selling off liquor stores and handing the lottery to a foreign company would push the number of family-sustaining jobs he wants to eliminate or ship overseas to more than 5,000."

And those workers will not go quietly into the night. Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers of Pa. Wine & Spirits Council, said on a conference call Wednesday that Corbett's estimates of new income are wildly overblown.

"We're going to continue to be a voice for more information about what happened in other states" that privatized, added Young.

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