HARRISBURG - It's the Pennsylvania Capitol's version of Groundhog Day: Lawmakers start the new year with a list of priorities. And privatizing the sale of wine and liquor is again near the top.
Legislative leaders emerged from a nearly monthlong break this week to say that they were again working with the Corbett administration to figure out how to change the way consumers buy alcohol. All said they were "cautiously optimistic" a deal could be brokered by the early part of this year.
"We're headed in the right direction and hopefully, we can get this over the goal line and to the governor's desk," House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), the legislature's most forceful cheerleader for privatization, told reporters this week.
It is a familiar story - but one that, so far, has not had a successful ending.
Gov. Corbett, a Republican and a strong privatization proponent, and the GOP-controlled legislature have been jockeying since the governor took office in 2011 to find a consensus on the issue, only to find it crumbling at the last minute.
Turzai introduced an aggressive privatization bill in 2011. It drew some debate the following year, but didn't move far.
In 2013, the start of a new legislative session, Corbett pushed his own plan. Lawmakers weighed in and a privatization measure passed the House in March - the farthest one has ever advanced.
Then the Senate gave preliminary approval to a plan of its own, setting the stage for an agreement. But talks fell apart, and the legislature broke for the summer without acting, delivering Corbett a defeat on a major policy initiative.
This time, administration officials are more cautious in characterizing the talks.
A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who is leading the negotiations, on Wednesday said the administration was trying to determine where there is potential for agreement among legislators and build on that. "There has been some progress, but we are clearly far from a consensus at this point," said spokesman Chad Saylor.
Saylor and others involved in the talks would not discuss specifics of any proposal. Last year, legislators were eyeing a plan that would eventually close most, if not all, of the 600-plus State Stores; allow beer distributors to sell by the six-pack (currently, they can only sell by the case or keg); and make it easier for private businesses, such as grocery stores and convenience stores, to obtain licenses that allow them to sell beer.
Turzai said he believes talks are pointing toward a proposal to phase out the State Stores and privatize the wholesale side of the Liquor Control Board's operations, a sticking point last year. He also said he believed a bill could be on the governor's desk early in 2014.
Some privately said they were uncertain if such an aggressive proposal would pass legislative muster, particularly in an election year. Corbett is seeking a second term, and all 203 House seats and half of the 50 Senate seats are up for election.
Yet others said they had heard murmurs of trying to push several different privatization or "consumer convenience" measures, including a bill to allow direct shipments of wine to Pennsylvania residents and another to allow more State Stores to open on Sundays, as well as stay open later on those days.
Wendell W. Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, one of two union locals representing 3,500 State Store employees, said he was skeptical that any agreement was near, but said he takes any privatization discussions seriously.
"It's the same discussion and the facts haven't changed," Young argued. "The current system works, and makes a lot of money for Pennsylvania taxpayers, and it's stupid to try and change that."
Turzai said privatization would generate some much-needed revenue for the state, which has a projected budget deficit of more than $1 billion. He would not put a dollar figure on how much it would raise.
Beyond that, said Turzai, "this would reform Pennsylvania . . . and move us into the 21st century."
He added: "Is Pennsylvania truly going to change, or isn't it?"