The election of the amiable Ned Lamont as governor and an enhanced Democratic majority in the General Assembly has certainly brought a new attitude to Hartford — a breath of fresh air, some might say, that swept away the irritable vibe of the self-described porcupine, Dannel Malloy.
Yet it seems some things never change. Percolating beneath the roiling waters of tolls, taxes, plastic bags, and forced school regionalization is the question of what to do with Connecticut’s vices. This discussion has been going on, well, at least since Thomas Hooker led a group of Puritans to Connecticut from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636.
Sports gambling and recreational marijuana, for example, have captured the imagination of many Capitol watchers. Most proponents of those two vices have their eyes on the revenue potential. Less glamorous is the concept of modernizing Connecticut’s archaic and punitive liquor laws. That sort of reform won’t generate much income to the treasury (perhaps that’s why so few politicians have historically advocated for it), but it will save consumers lot of money and deliver us from one of the last bastions of blatant protectionism still alive in the state.
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 — mostly mom-and-pop package store owners — from meaningful competition. Legislative attempts to move toward a free market have thus far proved largely symbolic.
The former governor made it a personal crusade to deliver us from the scourge of minimum pricing — a form of price fixing that would be laughed out of the Capitol if it applied to virtually any other industry. Indeed, Malloy called the practice, “quite frankly, outrageous.”
To listen to Carroll Hughes, the former head of the Connecticut Package Stores Association, forcing the stores to compete (or allowing them to open on Sundays) would put most of them out of business and leave the state in the clutches of rapacious big-box liquor stores such as Total Wine. But of course, the corner drug store, the family-owned hardware store, and the neighborhood barber enjoy no such protections against CVS, Home Depot, or the hair-cutting factories in the malls.
Those smaller retailers may not like it either, but at least they don’t look to the government to screw consumers or drive them to neighboring states — all in the name of “defending the rights of package store owners,” as the CPSA proudly claims on its website.
There have been small gains over the years, most notably Sunday openings and permission to feature one sale item per week that can be purchased below the minimum-bottle price. Still, we’ve got to be the only state in the nation where you can’t get a discount for buying wine by the case.
Fortunately, amid all our other legislative priorities, Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, who co-chairs the General Law Committee, has stepped up in an attempt to modernize Connecticut’s liquor laws, much of which he says “are 20, 40, 80 years old.”
But the landscape has changed even since Malloy signed legislation permitting Sunday openings and limited sale items. The craft brewing industry, for example, has grown considerably and is the focus of much of the current reform efforts. In yet another example of turf protection, the beer wholesalers evidently prodded lawmakers, including current state representative and Hartford mayoral candidate Brandon McGee, to introduce and then quickly withdraw some ridiculous legislation to force craft breweries to choose between selling their products off-site or operating their taprooms. Needless to say, the brewers were horrified and instead supported other measures they described as “pro-consumer, pro-business.” Heaven forbid we let them sell both on- and off-premises, as they are allowed to do at my favorite brew pub in Berkshire County, Mass.
I know. With a sluggish economy that still has not fully recovered from the great recession of 10 years ago, Connecticut is grappling with some huge problems. Reform in the alcohol sector may seem like small potatoes, but efforts to block competition in any sector send the precisely wrong message.
Those who are considering investing in Connecticut need to know that we are open for business. Otherwise, we might be seeing another recession before we’ve even recovered from the last one. Imagine, for a moment, the impact of that development on the health of the state and its ongoing struggles to fund the government.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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