HARRISBURG - The state House debated for less than two hours Wednesday on a bill to privatize wine and liquor sales in Pennsylvania, setting the stage for a historic vote on the issue.
House members could vote as soon as Thursday afternoon on a plan backed by Gov. Corbett to turn over the state's 600-plus liquor stores to the private sector. Utah is the only other state with government-run wholesale and retail liquor operations.
It was not clear whether Corbett's fellow Republicans had the votes to pass the bill. But Wednesday's 108-91 defeat of a Democratic bid to gut the bill suggested that the GOP may have the 102 votes needed to send it to the Senate.
If the House passes the proposal, it would be the farthest a liquor-privatization bill has moved through the legislature since the birth of the State Store system when Prohibition ended in 1933.
"Everybody in this chamber recognizes that our current system for selling alcohol in Pennsylvania is an anachronism, it's old-fashioned, and it needs to be changed," Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery) said in Wednesday's debate.
The decks were cleared for a Thursday vote when Democrats who oppose the bill withdrew dozens of amendments that had House officials gearing up for a long night.
The version awaiting a vote is different from Corbett's original proposal, which called for an aggressive auctioning of State Store licenses to the private sector, including supermarkets, convenience stores, and big-box stores.
Revisions made this week in a committee would slow the transition to the private sector and limit what some retailers could sell. Money raised by auctioning off the stores would still go to public schools, as Corbett had envisioned - but House Republicans say the revised plan would generate $800 million, not the $1 billion his administration projected.
The bill calls for 1,200 liquor licenses statewide. Beer distributors would get first crack and could choose between applying just to sell wine or just liquor, in addition to beer if they did not want to sell all three.
Also unlike Corbett's proposal: Grocery stores could sell only wine unless they applied for a special license to sell beer as well. That license would require them to have a restaurant-style seating area.
Finally, the revised bill would not immediately shut down State Stores. They would be phased out and some could remain open in rural areas.
The union representing State Store retail clerks has warned that passage of the bill would cost 5,000 jobs.