FOREST CITY, Pa. — Ralph Miranda was looking for eggnog here the other day at the state liquor store, a dated and somewhat forlorn little shop with no name, just the Soviet-style designation #5801. When the store manager told him they were out, Mr. Miranda muttered, “That’s why you privatize.”The next nearest store in this rural area of northeast Pennsylvania, a depressed region of old coal mines and small farms, is 11 miles away. And because #5801 loses money, it is closed four days a week, with limited hours the other three.
Like prisoners in the gulag, consumers here can only fantasize about buying their wine and liquor in a competitive free market. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has run the liquor stores for eight decades, a relic of the post-Prohibition era, when government thought controlling the sale of alcohol would limit consumption.
The legislature has consistently dismissed talk of privatizing the system, mainly because of opposition from the union representing the store workers and from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and conservative teetotalers, all influential in the state.
But since the election in November of a Republican governor who campaigned against the state stores, and with new lopsided Republican majorities in the Statehouse, privatization may be closer than ever.
Fueling the talk is the state’s desperate need for cash. The state is facing a budget gap of $4 billion. Proponents say selling the state stores could bring in $1 billion or even $2 billion, not to mention a happier consumer experience.
But opponents say the sale would be a one-shot jolt and then would deny the state the $90 million in annual profits that the stores clear.
Joe Conti, a former state lawmaker and restaurateur in Bucks County who is now chief executive of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, said the state would do a better job than private stores of preventing sales to minors and to already-tipsy customers because state workers “aren’t incentivized to sell.”
That is just the problem, say some: without competition, the state has no incentive to improve the system.
But Mr. Conti said the state had modernized some of its 620 stores and expanded their hours. Now, he said, 75 “premium” outlets are “as good as you would find anywhere in the country.” He hopes to start a pilot project soon to give them names instead of numbers.
But nearly every customer at #5801 interviewed one afternoon this week thought selling the state stores would be like getting out of jail.
“This is insane!” said Bill Conrad, 68, a retired electrical engineer. “People are going to New York and Jersey” to buy alcohol.
Ann Marie Magalaski, 70, a retired dental hygienist, said that with wine and spirits unavailable in supermarkets, she had to make “a whole extra trip” to buy wine at the state store.
Brian Zedar, 40, a crane operator who lives 10 miles away, said the limited hours meant “you have to plan ahead.” He said he assumed that a private store would have cheaper prices.
The state has closed nearly 50 unprofitable stores in the last couple of years and consolidated some. The only reason to keep #5801 open, Mr. Conti said, was that the next store was so far away.
It is not a sure bet that privatizing the system would improve things though. Depending on the price of the license, no one might want it. And if they did, they might move stores from rural locations.
Kevin Harley, a spokesman for the incoming governor, Tom Corbett, said that while privatization would face opposition, “I think we can get it done.”
“The system is better than it was, but it is still a government monopoly,” Mr. Harley said. “The question will be whether selling wine and spirits is a core function of government.”