The General Law Committee voted Tuesday in favor of a bill allowing the sale of alcohol on Sundays after less than a half hour of debate and with bipartisan support.
The bill limits Sunday hours of operation from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and allows stores to open on Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day.
Given that last year the committee voted 13-2 to kill an amendment that would have allowed Sunday sales, few would have predicted the measure would clear the committee this year. But a lot has changed since then.
In January, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed sweeping changes to how alcohol is sold in the state. In addition to Sunday sales, the bill would have made changes to how package stores are permitted and allowed them to sell products below cost.
In an effort to block some of the provisions he considered more damaging to liquor store owners, Carroll Hughes, head of the Connecticut Package Store Association, dropped his longtime fight against Sunday sales.
The bill’s February public hearing drew nearly a thousand people to the Legislative Office Building. Most of the General Law Committee members sat through the entire hearing which lasted more than 10 hours.
The modified bill the committee passed rejected many of the provisions included in Malloy’s original proposal. Sen. Kevin Witkos, a ranking Republican on the committee, said the bill represented a compromise based on the testimony lawmakers heard at the hearing.
“The product that’s before us today is a result of that public hearing, taking everyone’s input into play. I think the bill modernizes our antiquated Blue Laws, it’s consumer friendly, it provides for a free market competition,” he said.
The governor had initially proposed eliminating minimum pricing requirements for alcohol products but after an outcry from small package store owners, he compromised, limiting the number of product that could be sold below cost to 10. The General Law Committee’s bill only allows for only one item to be sold below cost.
Though the bill drops much of the Malloy’s original proposal, the governor was credited with pushing the issue this year.
“Anyone who has been up here a day this session knows that Gov. Malloy put forth the boldest package of liquor laws legislation that this state has seen in many decades,” Rep. Joseph Taborsak, co-chairman of the committee, said.
“To the governor’s credit he pushed these issues into the limelight this year and challenged this committee to vote out a bill that modernizes our liquor laws, increases consumer access, makes us more competitive with other states, provides greater opportunity for consumer discounts and generates much needed revenues. The bill before you accomplishes all those laudable goals,” he said.
In the hallway of the state Capitol Tuesday Malloy called the bill a “victory,” even though it stops short of where he wanted to see the legislation go.
Malloy said the new pricing structure his legislation created would have helped Connecticut recover hundreds of millions of dollars it’s currently losing to other states when consumers travel to surrounding states to purchase alcohol.
“Those hundreds of millions of dollars represent lost jobs in our state,” he said. “We have the remainder of the session to see if we can get some more pro-consumer language in there, but I’m very happy with what’s happened today.”
The governor’s bill was expected to raise revenues by a net gain of $8.5 million and the bill the committee passed is only expected to bring in $5.3 million, according to an Office of Fiscal Analysis comparison.
Rep. Kathy Tallarita, D- Enfield, who represents a border town where liquor store owners lose business to Massachusetts stores, has been pushing for Sunday sales for years. She said Tuesday’s vote was a big victory, but wished the committee had kept more of the governor’s ideas.
Provisions that the committee abandoned like one that would have allowed gas stations to sell beer, were significant revenue generators, she said. The governor had also proposed extending the hours of package stores and restaurants.
“Those three elements that I think we could have worked with the governor on would have achieved the numbers,” she said. “I think that would have been an easy thing for us to do.”
In place of some of the more ambitious elements of Malloy’s bill, the committee voted to establish a task force to study what impact changes will have on the state’s liquor industry.
Tabosak said studying the issue is a safer option for the committee.
“The bill is pro-consumer and pro small business without engaging in guess work with people’s jobs and livelihoods. None of us want to get this wrong and do something to put people out of business,” he said.
Though he’s fought Sunday sales for years, Hughes said the bill the committee passed represented a carefully thought out compromise. For instance, the governor had originally proposed increasing the number of package stores someone can own from two to nine. But the committee’s bill only increases it to three.
“It’s probably a reasonable bipartisan response to all the commentary that was provided at the Feb. 28 public hearing,” he said.
After looking at all the concepts the governor proposed, accepting Sunday sales seemed like an appropriate response, he said. Hughes said the concession ended an “assault” by a coalition to end the state’s blue laws.
“I felt like it was a bayonet charge down Little Round Top, you know? They’d been assaulting us for six weeks,” he said.