The state House of Representatives voted Thursday to end Connecticut’s long holdout against the sale of alcohol on Sundays in package stores and supermarkets — in a compromise Sunday-alcohol-sales bill that dropped earlier proposals by the governor for a sweeping deregulation of the liquor industry, but still was touted as good for consumers.
The measure passed easily by a bipartisan vote of 116 to 27 after two hours of late-afternoon debate. It now goes to the state Senate.
It would would make Connecticut the 49th state to allow Sunday alcohol sales in retail stores — outside of restaurants and bars, where alcoholic beverages have historically been allowed seven days a week — and would leave Indiana as the only state with an across-the-board ban on sales of beer, wine and liquor on Sunday.
Stores would have the option of adding 55 days of alcoholic beverage sales each year — on 52 Sundays, as well as Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day — from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Although it’s optional for stores to open on Sundays and the three holidays, it’s believed that many will because of competitive pressures.
If also approved in the Senate and signed in coming weeks by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the bill would allow the first sales on a major holiday: this coming Memorial Day.
The bill is “about consumer convenience – and is also a revenue generator” because it will recapture millions in annual revenue “that we have been losing every single Sunday” to bordering states as residents have left Connecticut to buy liquor, Kathleen Tallarita, a Democrat from the northern border town of Enfield who has been Sunday sales’ most outspoken proponent.
“I feel it’s taken a long time to get here,” Tallarita said. Noting that heavy negotiations and compromises led up to the version approved Thursday, she said, “I feel comfortable with the bill that’s before us. … That is what I have been fighting for the last few years.”
Malloy issued a statement about 7:45 p.m., some 50 minutes after the House vote: “Tonight, the House voted in favor of one of the most significant changes to our state’s ‘blue laws’ in recent memory. Under the current law, we lose millions of dollars over the border every Sunday. It’s a bad policy that inconveniences consumers and makes businesses less competitive. But after tonight, there will be an additional 55 days where sales will be permissible. It’s a good first step.”
He added: “I continue to believe there’s more we can do to make our package stores more consumer friendly. I am encouraged that the legislature will study this issue, a sign I hope that there may be more we can accomplish in the near future. This much is certain – the more we can lower prices for consumers, the more competitive our businesses will be. And the hundreds of millions of dollars our state would recapture will unquestionably benefit our economy.”
Malloy originally had proposed a much broader bill including provisions such as the sale of beer at convenience stores at gasoline stations, and allowing bars to remain open until 2 a.m. However, legislators modified the heavily lobbied measure by rejecting the governor’s call for a complicated “medallion” system for owners to sell their package stores, and by limiting one person to owning three package stores instead of nine as proposed by Malloy.
Malloy also had proposed that package stores be allowed to remain open until 10 p.m. seven days a week; the latest closing on weekdays would remain at 9 p.m. under the bill.
Connecticut package stores, through their longtime chief lobbyist, Carroll J. Hughes, dropped their traditional opposition to Sunday sales in order to beat back Malloy’s sweeping deregulation proposal that they said it would have forced hundreds of package stores out of business; they said it would have given an advantage to big-money retailers at the expense of low-margin, mom-and-pop package stores. In return for going along with Sunday sales, the package store owners won optional opening and controlled hours. They also turned aside provisions on eliminating minimum pricing, and blocked proposed discounts.
However, such issues will be studied by a a 15-member Competitive Alcoholic Liquor Pricing Task Force that the bill would establish. That panel would consider possible changes in Connecticut’s complex system of liquor taxes, minimum pricing provisions, and quantity-and-volume discounts. It would report its findings to the General Assembly by next January for possible further legislative action.
An earlier version of the bill would have given the governor only one appointment on a 13-member task force, but because of a compromise with Malloy, the governor now would appoint three members of the expanded, 15-member study panel. Two governor’s commissioners also would sit on the panel, giving a total of five appointees to the executive branch, while legislative leader would have 10.
Hughes, the package stores’ lobbyist, said Thursday that “we look forward to working with the task force in regard to the many other aspects of the liquor industry – since the bill affects almost totally package stores. We need to go upstream next to the wholesalers and the manufacturers since pricing and other factors relate to what we buy the product for, not what we sell it for. … In a couple of stores in Massachusetts, they sell the product at retail for less than what we can buy it for from wholesalers.’’
Hughes said the package store owners he represents are “very savvy” and will make the most of Sunday sales. “They may have winter hours and open up on the Super Bowl or on the holidays.”
Courant Staff Writer Christopher Keating contributed to this story.