DISCUS

Issue Of Sunday Alcohol Sales Rises Again In Legislature

December 17, 2009 07:00 PM

A Sunday beer run — in Connecticut?

Not yet, but on Thursday a key legislative committee reopened the debate over allowing package stores and supermarkets to sell alcohol on the first day of the week.

A new legislative report says the change would mean an extra $7.5 million to $8 million in tax revenue for the state, a finding that might add weight to the argument for Sunday openings — a long-running, heavily lobbied issue at the state Capitol.

The group that would sell most of that alcohol, the Connecticut Package Stores Association, has blocked Sunday sales multiple times in the past five years. The association says the extra day would not mean extra money because it would simply spread existing sales over seven days instead of six.

That argument 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 14 in the nation — that bans Sunday sales in stores and supermarkets.

As part of a broader, 72-page report on economic competitiveness that was released Thursday, 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 stated that per-capita sales in the border towns were 35 percent to 43 percent lower than in other Connecticut towns between 2004 and 2008.

State Sen. John Kissel, co-chairman of the committee, was delighted with the report. He has been fighting this war for years — his district covers the border towns of Enfield, Suffield, Somers and Granby.

" Massachusetts and New York and Rhode Island laugh at us sometimes because we are so slow to change," Kissel, a Republican, said Thursday. "I think that argument [for Sunday sales] has strong grounds now."

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.

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

"The only one that ever made any sense was if Christmas fell on a Monday," Hughes said, referring to a one-time, temporary change that the legislature allowed several years ago because of a quirk in the calendar. "They almost did nothing [in sales] for the Sunday before New Year's, but they did do volume on the Sunday before Christmas."

Hughes rejected the committee staff's estimate that opening on Sunday could generate $7.5 million to $8 million in taxes. With the state's continuing budget problems, that figure has aroused interest among some at the Capitol.

But with the sales tax at 6 percent, Hughes said the estimated increase in the state's take would require about $130 million in additional alcohol sales. Because the average bottle of wine sells for $6, the sales volume would need to explode to generate that much money, he said.

"The number is preposterous. A huge, huge number, incomprehensible," Hughes said.

Another factor in the debate is that Massachusetts imposed a sales tax of 6.25 percent on alcohol in August that Hughes said has sharply changed the dynamics for Connecticut package stores. Buyers are now staying home in Connecticut because there is less of an advantage to crossing the border, he said.

"Massachusetts is no longer a serious threat because of the sales tax," he said, adding that the impetus for Sunday sales in Connecticut should be reduced.

Despite the committee staff's recommendation, the proposal still has a long way to go. It would have to be approved by various committees, the House, the Senate and the governor. House and Senate Republicans briefly offered Sunday sales in their budget proposal this year, but the idea was never approved.

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

Before the proposal can move forward, there will be a public hearing in which package-store owners and others are expected to testify about the revenue estimates and the implications of the proposed change.

"We welcome a public hearing," Hughes said.

CONTACT: Telephone: SCROLLER Publication Name: Hartford Courant Publication Author: Chris Keating
 

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