I may not be Gov. Dan Malloy’s biggest fan, but every time he tilts at windmills in an effort to reform the state’s outrageous liquor laws, I want to hug that little porcupine.
For the uninitiated, Connecticut has the most oppressive and anti-competitive laws governing the sale and distribution of alcohol in the country. It punishes the consumer in the name of protecting an entire class of retailers from meaningful competition. If any other retailer in the state enjoys these kinds of protections from pricing competition, I’m not aware of it.
Despite predictions of the apocalypse, the Connecticut Package Store Association and its chief henchman, Carroll Hughes, failed to stave off the passage of a law in 2012 allowing Sunday openings. Malloy also wanted to eliminate so-called above-cost minimum pricing for each bottle of wine and liquor sold.
Of course, the mom-and-pop package store owners love minimum pricing because the system doesn’t require them to compete with one another. Consumers, however, are getting ripped off.
The loudmouths on the comment threads complain that Malloy’s real intention is to stimulate sales to generate more revenue to pay more state employees and grow the government, as every Democrat likes to do. And they point to the fact that Sunday sales have generated little extra sales volume.
I can’t read Malloy’s mind, but even if his motive is to get his greedy hands on more of my money, then I don’t really care. You see, even if the elimination of minimum pricing brings more money into the state treasury, I still come out ahead because I’ll pay 20 percent less for my wine when I buy in my home state.
Fortunately, I work in Massachusetts and can buy there, so Connecticut’s outrageous laws rarely affect me. Be that as it may, this is really a simple matter of fairness to consumers and freedom for the business community. And those who are opposed to the elimination of minimum pricing are either package store owners or people close to them who think they’ll get a raw deal if they have to compete against larger stores.
And they’re probably right that some smaller stores will go out of business if the the state-mandated price fixing ends. Hughes is predicting the sky will fall. In dire tones, Hughes warns that more than half the state’s 1,150 package stores would close if they had to compete with Total Wine, which opened a 35,000-square-foot superstore in Norwalk two years ago, but under existing laws will reach its maximum number of stores when it opens new outlets in Manchester and Milford.
But why should package store owners be protected from the big guys when your local hardware store has to compete with Home Depot, the corner drug store with CVS and the one-chair barber with the army of haircutters at the mall? The answer is the package stores should not be protected and any sane, disinterested observer should know it.
“People who don’t support this support Connecticut consumers being gouged,” Malloy said. “That’s what this is about, giving Connecticut consumers the lowest possible price.”
Package store owners and their apologists in the legislature have always tried to change the subject from minimum pricing to Connecticut’s liquor taxes relative to other nearby states such as Massachusetts. Yes, it’s true that the Bay State has no sales tax on alcohol and a lower excise tax than Connecticut.
But that doesn’t even begin to make up for the pricing chasm between us and neighboring states. The invocation of the tax difference by the package store owners and their lobbyists was nothing more than an attempt to distract attention away a price-fixing scheme that would be considered illegal in almost every other retail sector.
For obvious reasons, Malloy chose to go to WPLR-FM’s Chaz and AJ radio show to announce his policy push last week. He figured he would get a friendly reception at the wacky morning show. And he was right. The hosts gave him hugs and high-fives when he presented them with a six-pack of Connecticut-brewed craft beer.
So why go after the package store cartel when there are so many other problems facing the state? Yes, we’re staring at projected budget deficits in each of the next two years of $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion. We have enormous transportation challenges and education funding has reached a critical stage.
But Connecticut also is an extraordinarily expensive place in which to live and do business, in part because of absurd laws that protect certain classes of businesses at the expense of the rest of us. And the fact that a relative handful of business owners have a stranglehold on the legislature and can force us to pay 20 to 30 percent more than we need to for a product is an outrage that must be stopped. It’s enough to drive me to drink — and stroke my pet porcupine.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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