Late on Thursday night, Pennsylvania’ House of Representatives approved a law to end the state’s Prohibition-era monopoly on alcohol sales.
Pennsylvania and Utah are the only two states that have kept monopolies on the sales of beer, wine, and spirits in the decades after the 18th Amendment was repealed and Prohibition ended in 1933.
The law passed on party lines, with most Republicans voting for it, while Democrats were united in their opposition.
Democratic leaders in the state senate have asked for 30 to 60 days of additional hearings and have said revisions are expected before, or if, the law comes up for a vote on the Senate floor.
The complicated resolution will privatize sales to consumers, taking away much of the power from the state’s Liquor Control Board, one of the biggest buyers of booze in the world.
In its current form, the law would require the Liquor Control Board to sell most of its proprietary state stores to private interests, with people who have dedicated beer distributorships getting the first chance to buy licenses. Grocery stores would be able to sell wine, though probably not beer, and big-box stores and pharmacies would sell wine, with limited beer sales.
Currently, Pennsylvania consumers need to travel to specially designated state-controlled stores to buy wine and spirits, with limited amounts of beer sold at bars, restaurants, and a handful of grocery stores. Cases of beer can only be sold by select beer distributors.
The law’s future in the Pennsylvania Senate is far from certain, as a united coalition of unions, social conservatives, drunk-driving opponents, and Democratic lawmakers oppose it for various reasons.
On Thursday, interests representing the beer industry seemed split on the bill.
Historically, that coalition has been very successful in articulating its points and rallying opposition across political and social lines.
The supporters of the liquor privatization law include Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and many Republicans, tea party members, and fiscal conservatives. The state’s voters also have approved, in various polls, moves to allow liquor sales at retail and convenience stores, like many other states, and more products in more stores.
But Corbett’s powerful predecessors lost the booze battle in previous years to a fight that has its roots in the second term of former Governor Gifford Pinchot in 1933.
Related Story: A look at Pinchot's liquor control system in 1933
Corbett and privatization supporters hope to realize $800 million from the sales of liquor and beer sales licenses. The money would go into the state’s education budget.
Privatization opponents will also point to the struggles of another state, Washington, which recently ended its Prohibition-era battle over liquor.
In November 2011, Washington voters decided in a referendum to end its Pennsylvania-style liquor system. Prices were higher for hard liquor after privatization, reports a local newspaper as of January 2013, because of taxes that were tacked onto the law.
Taxes aren’t currently part of Pennsylvania’s proposed law, except that the state will continue to levy an 18 percent Johnstown Flood Tax on liquor products, which dates back to 1936.
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Editor's Note: If you are in the Philadelphia area in the next few weeks, check out the National Constitution Center's acclaimed feature exhibition, American Spirits: The Rise And Fall Of Prohibition, on view through April 28. For more info, go to prohibition.constitutioncenter.org.