With bipartisan support, the General Law Committee voted Tuesday in favor of a bill revising Connecticut’s liquor laws to allow, among other measures, sale of alcohol on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The bill passed in committee 15 to 3, with two Democrats and one Republican against the measure. Last year, similar legislation aimed at repealing the state’s blue laws, which forbid the sale of alcohol on Sundays, did not even make it out of committee, faliling by a vote of 13 to 2. Though several local liquor store owners believe the bill in its current state is an improvement to legislation suggested by Gov. Dannel Malloy in January, four owners and managers interviewed said they still did not support the bill. They said that allowing Sunday liquor sales, as well as some of the bill’s other provisions, including one that increases the number of package stores that can be owned by a single person, put small businesses at a competitive disadvantage with respect to larger chains.
“I’m very happy with the liquor law bill that passed today,” state Sen. Kevin Witkos, a ranking Republican on the committee, said. “It’s evident that it’s a true bipartisan measure. Whenever we work together collectively, we seem to be able to pass great legislation by a large majority.”
The recent push for liquor law reform began when Malloy proposed what Witkos called aggressive changes in January. Small liquor storeowners turned up en masse at a 10-hour public hearing held Feb. 28, many in protest of Malloy’s proposals.
Following the public hearing, Malloy announced a more moderate set of proposals. The General Law Committee went even in scaling them back, eliminating several of Malloy’s intended measures, such as allowing gas stations to sell beer, and weakening others, such as bringing the number of items that can be sold below cost from 10 to one. The committee passed the bill in half an hour.
According to state Sen. Carlo Leone, vice chair of the committee, strong industry support helped drive the proposal through committee proceedings.
At the public hearing, Carroll Hughes, executive director of the Connecticut Package Stores Association, a lobby of the state’s liquor retail industry, came out in support of Sunday sales for the first time. He said he did so because he felt it was more important to fight other measures that would “destroy the small liquor stores in Connecticut” than to keep Connecticut’s blue laws intact.
Though the association has not yet endorsed the revised bill, Hughes said he expects that if the legislation remains in its current state, the association will support it.
But local liquor store owners are wary of measures Malloy has “hidden” in the legislation, said Ankur Patel, manager of New Haven Wine & Liquor Co. on Whalley Avenue. Measures such as the one increasing the number of package stores someone can own will force smaller “mom-and-pop” liquor stores to face increased competition from larger retailers.
Ajit Patel, manager and owner of Odd Bins Bottle Shop on Whitney Avenue, said the bill was “designed to drive small stores out of business,” which will ultimately hurt consumers.
Some storeowners said even the most publicized provision of the bill — allowing liquor business to open on Sundays — would place a burden on small businesses. Ajit Patel and Mike Fings, manager of Liquor World on Whalley Avenue, said that even if the new legislation were to pass, they would not choose to open on Sunday.
“Consumers don’t understand the effort being put behind a package store,” Ankur Patel said. “We’re working 70 to 80 hours a week. We want to have a life, spend time with our families. We need a break.”
Members of the General Law Committee expressed their hope Tuesday that the bill will make Connecticut’s liquor industry more competitive with that of its neighbors. According to the state’s Office of Fiscal Analysis, the bill that passed the committee is expected to bring the state $5.3 million in revenue, in comparison to an estimated $8.5 million as a result of the governor’s original bill.
The bill now heads for a vote in the full General Assembly, which must act on it by May 8, when its legislative session ends. Members of the committee said they are fairly confident that, given current bipartisan and industry support for the bill, the measures will pass.
“I think what we passed is something most people can live with,” Leone said. “I don’t expect any further changes that will disrupt what we’ve put forward.”
The bill also calls for the implementation of a task force to look into the impact additional changes will have on the liquor industry. Leone said the committee hopes to use data collected from the task force to consider further revisions next year.
“It was a balancing act,” Leone said. “We wanted to give consumers more choice and support small business owners, and yet move forward in a way to see if further revisions will be necessary.”
Connecticut is currently one of only two states in the United States that does not allow Sunday liquor sales.