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Sunday Liquor Sales: 3 Connecticut Mayors Making A New Push


February 11, 2010

Mayors of the state's three largest cities are calling for the sale of alcohol in package stores and supermarkets on Sundays, continuing a running controversy on a long-banned practice in Connecticut.

Unusual Laws and Ordinances In Connecticut

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, who strongly supported the idea when he was a state senator, joined with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez on Wednesday to push for the sales, citing a recent legislative staff report that says the change would mean an extra $7.5 million to $8 million annually in tax revenue for the state.

"If our legislators simply lifted this antiquated ban on Sunday alcohol sales," Finch said, "our financially struggling state could stop bleeding business and sending tax revenue to stores in neighboring states."

The mayors are in favor of this, Finch said, in hopes that as much of the extra revenue as possible flows back to the cities, which provide the bulk of the state's social services for the poor.

The group that would sell most of that alcohol, the Connecticut Package Stores Association, has blocked Sunday sales multiple times during the past five years in one of the most heavily lobbied issues at the Capitol. The association says the extra day would not mean any extra money for the state or the stores because it would simply spread existing sales over seven days instead of six while adding an extra day of operating costs.

Despite support from the three mayors, the idea has a long way to go. It requires approval by the full House of Representatives and the state Senate, which it has never had. Another major obstacle is Gov. M. Jodi Rell's opposition to the idea. Rell's budget director, Robert Genuario, said Rell did not include Sunday sales in her latest budget despite huge state deficits because she flatly opposes them.

Finch said he has been frustrated by the legislature's general law committee, which has blocked Sunday sales for years.

"I couldn't get it through when I was a senator, so I'm trying to back-door it," Finch said. "You have to go down to South Carolina to find a state on the Eastern Seaboard" with a ban as strong as Connecticut's.

While favoring a statewide lift of the ban on Sunday sales, Finch said that he and the other mayors would support a law that would allow Sunday sales in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven.

"At least let us do it," Finch said. "What we hope to demonstrate to the state is show them how silly they have been by leaving the money on the table. If you go to the Sturbridge liquor stores, you see Connecticut license plates up there."

Finch said, "We're not worried about this in terms of the impact socially. What we're worried about is the money. ... Even if it was $100,000 more for Bridgeport, it's $100,000 we desperately need.

"We think it's worth a shot," he said. "Let's see what it brings in."

The argument against Sunday sales has carried the day at the Capitol in the past, as legislators have rejected the pleadings of lawmakers representing border towns, such as Enfield, who say liquor stores in their towns now suffer from weak sales.

Connecticut is the only state in New England and one of only three in the nation with an across-the-board ban on Sunday sales of beer, wine and liquor in stores and supermarkets. Bans in other states vary in terms of the type of alcoholic beverages that can be sold on Sundays.

As part of a broader, 72-page report on economic competitiveness that was released in December, the legislature's program review and investigations committee staff wrote: "Connecticut liquor and grocery stores should be permitted, but not required, to sell alcohol on Sunday under their current licensing provisions."

The report said per-capita sales in the border towns were 35 percent to 43 percent lower than in other Connecticut towns from 2004 to 2008.

State Sen. John Kissel strongly supported the reportand has long advocated Sunday liquor sales.His district covers the towns along the Massachusetts border: Enfield, Suffield, Somers and Granby.

Aware of the legislature's solid opposition, Kissel said it might be possible to compromise by allowing sales on Sundays during the heavy shopping period between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

Carroll Hughes, a longtime lobbyist for the package store owners, said Wednesday that the Sunday sales at any time of the year are a bad idea because the stores would be forced to pay overtime rates for their workers with no significant increase in sales. Some stores that are barely profitable would be forced to close, he said.

The association represents 1,100 package stores in 168 out of the 169 towns in a state of 3.4 million people. The stores are often "mom and pop" operations that do not even have computers in the store in 2010. Of 1,100 stores, Hughes has an e-mail list of only about 50.

Hughes rejects the committee staff's estimate that opening on Sunday could generate an additional $7.5 million to $8 million in taxes per year.

With the state's continuing budget problems, that figure has aroused interest at the Capitol. But with the state's sales tax at 6 percent, Hughes said Wednesday, the estimated increase in the state's revenue would require about $135 million in additional alcohol sales. At current prices, the sales volume would need to explode to generate that much money, he said. Hughes calculated that Connecticut residents would need to buy 13.5 million bottles of vodka at $10 each in order to raise that level of revenue.

"The wholesalers support us the beer and the liquor wholesalers," Hughes said. "If we lose stores, they lose salesmen, and they lose drivers."

Besides having the backing of legislators from border towns, the idea has gained strong support from the national Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and its lobbyists.

The state legislature is expected to hold a public hearing probably within the next two weeks on the program review and investigations committee staff's recommendation about allowing Sunday sales. But no date has been set.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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