In a move that could change Connecticut's liquor landscape, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will propose allowing Sunday sales of alcohol at package stores and beer at supermarkets.
The change must be approved by the state legislature, which has repeatedly rejected the idea over the years.
Malloy has changed his position from last year on the highly controversial and heavily lobbied issue. He had said that he would sign a bill for Sunday sales if it was passed by the legislature, but he would not take any positive actions to make that happen. As such, Malloy remained on the sidelines last year, and the bill failed once again.
The difference this year would be a proposal - with the strong backing of the governor's office - to change the long-running state law. The bill's chances of approval will now improve immensely because many members of the Democratic-controlled legislature routinely vote to approve proposals by the Democratic governor.
Carroll Hughes, the chief lobbyist for the Connecticut Package Stores Association, stresses that the prohibition on Sunday is a state liquor law, not a "blue'' law. The blue laws were outlawed in Connecticut more than 30 years ago, allowing the sales of automobiles and numerous other consumer products on Sundays.
Some insiders expected that Sunday alcohol sales would be approved last year because of Malloy's pledge to sign the bill. But Hughes said that Malloy had kept his word in remaining on the sidelines during last year's battle. As such, the package stores lobby was able to beat back the bill in the same way as in the past.
Malloy's senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, said that Malloy made his decision after reviewing the liquor laws and practices in surrounding states of New York and Massachusetts.
"What's driving his perspective on this is that same issue of keeping Connecticut competitive with other states,'' Occhiogrosso told Capitol Watch on Friday afternoon. "For too long, Connecticut just stopped competing. He's doing this for the consumers as well.''
Before deciding how much the state income tax and other taxes would be increased last year, Malloy checked the tax rates in New York and other states. He repeatedly mentioned that analysis during the months leading up to the tax increase - saying that he wanted to keep a lower marginal income tax rate than states like New York and New Jersey.
Malloy will make his announcement on changes in the alcohol laws at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Enfield town hall - just down the street on Route 5 from the Massachusetts border. Town hall is also within walking distance of a package store owned by Dominic Alaimo, one of the most outspoken proponents of Sunday sales. Another proponent, Jay Hibbard of Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, known as DISCUS, will be at Saturday's press conference.
Malloy is also considering proposing to allow the package stores to remain open until 10 p.m., rather than the current latest closing time of 9 p.m. The package stores currently have the option to remain open until 9 p.m., but some close at 8 p.m. Supermarkets, by contrast, are always open until 9 p.m.
Malloy's proposals have been percolating in recent months as his staff has studied the issue.
"We've been meeting with the governor's staff over the last couple of months,'' Hughes told Capitol Watch on Friday. "I spoke to the governor in October, and he said everything would be on the table - on different aspects of the industry. Our concern was we didn't want to be the only one on the table. It's a very structured and very controlled industry. We only sell three items - beer, wine, and liquor. The food stores sell 5,000 [items].''
He added, "We were open five or six years ago on Sunday when Christmas and New Year's fell on a Monday. ... We were supposed to do $1 million [in additional state tax revenue] when we went from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. But my people say we did nothing. ... We know there are days when we could open, but 52 [Sundays] is too many. It artificially increases the store expenses. ... If we lose 300 stores, we are losing 1.5 jobs per store. There is a cascading.''
He noted that consumers who previously came in 10 minutes before the package stores closed at 8 p.m. now come in 10 minutes before the store closes at 9 p.m. It did not increase the overall sales, he said. Massachusetts has 7,000 people per store, and Connecticut has about 3,300 people per store, he said.
Hughes noted that he is not aware of the full extent of Malloy's proposal, which will not be revealed by the governor's office until Saturday. Hughes said the package stores are open to changes as long as they will save jobs and keep the stores open.
"I've found the governor to be a very reasonable person,'' Hughes said. "We all have our roles here. Me, too.''
Hughes said that some package store owners are recent arrivals from Pakistan and India - and are trying to become successful for their children in America.
"The father is working 70-some hours to make sure that kid makes it,'' he said.
After intense lobbying on both sides last year, the issue was blocked once again as a key committee avoided a direct vote on changing the law. The lack of action by the general law committee was important because bills under the committee's authority needed to be acted upon by the committee's deadline.
Even though he won last year, Hughes said he knew the game was not over. Behind the scenes, the pro-Sunday sales supporters were talking about a possible move right until the end of the legislative session.
"There's always the ninth inning,'' Hughes, a baseball fan, said last year. "A lot of people don't take no for an answer here.''
Hibbard, the vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, came to Hartford last year to watch the committee's deliberations. His organization, as well as the Connecticut Food Association, has paid for full-page newspaper advertisements to push for Sunday sales. Hibbard predicted at the time that Connecticut would continue to lose sales - and tax revenue - as residents drive to surrounding states to buy beer and wine on Sundays.
"It happens every week on every side of the state, and those that have a boat are probably crossing over Long Island Sound to buy there,'' Hibbard told The Courant last year.
On Friday, Hibbard was pleased with Malloy's proposal.
"We applaud the Governor for recognizing the important revenue potential of Sunday alcohol sales for the state and the convenience it provides to consumers,'' Hibbard said in a statement. "By the state’s own estimate, Sunday sales could generate up to $8 million in new tax revenue annually.''
He added, "Sunday sales have had a clear history of success as a revenue raiser in other states. Even in Georgia, the Deep South, consumer reaction to the recent passage of Sunday sales has been overwhelmingly positive, with over 100 communities immediately voting for it, including an astounding 82-18 percent vote in Atlanta. Since 2002, 15 states have joined the list of states allowing Sunday sales, bringing the total to 37. Connecticut and Indiana remain the only two states that still cling to a complete ban on Sunday sales of all beverage alcohol. The Governor is correct, it is time to strike down this Blue Law in Connecticut.''
After some procedural maneuvers, the general law committee failed to approve the Sunday sales legislation last year because the two Democratic co-chairmen - state Sen. Paul Doyle of Wethersfield and state Rep. Joseph Taborsak of Danbury - didn't place the bill on the committee's agenda.
Doyle said the issue had been given a public hearing for the first time by the committee, and the chief advocate, Rep. Kathleen Tallarita, did not have the votes by the night before the meeting, when the committee's agenda had to be posted in advance of the meeting. It was decided if the votes were not secured by the previous evening, it would not be placed on the agenda - and that's what happened, Doyle said.
Tallarita, an Enfield Democrat who has become the most outspoken supporter of Sunday sales, said she was not deterred by the committee's lack of action. Enfield is a border town, and its most outspoken package store owner, Dominic Alaimo, says he has lost business to Massachusetts stores on Sundays.
"People have been going from Enfield to shop in Massachusetts since the town was founded,'' Hughes said. "We're trying to strike a balance here. We're trying to be reasonable and trying to stablilize the jobs that are in the industry.''
The estimates of the amount of additional tax money that could be generated from Sunday sales has varied widely - and has become a key part of the ongoing debate. Hughes says the increase would only be about $100,000 because, he says, sales would be spread over seven days, instead of six, and there would be essentially no increase in overall sales. Tallarita, by contrast, says that Sunday sales would generate $3.5 million to $5 million of "easy money'' per year that would not involve any tax increases in a difficult budget year.
Rep. Stephen Dargan, a veteran House Democrat from West Haven, said one of the potential compromises could be to allow the package stores to sell more items that are currently prevented by law.
"The big box stores are open all the time anyway,'' said Dargan, who sits near Tallarita in the House chamber. "A majority of the package store owners have come to us in the past and said they don't want to be open on Sunday. ... The problem is some of the package stores don't have a lot of space. ... I have listened to both sides. We have never voted on it. ... It's more about increasing the convenience for the consumer than it is for increasing revenue to the state or the independent owner.''
Tallarita and Hughes disagreed over every aspect of the issue, including the meaning of a Quinnipiac University Poll last year that showed that a majority of voters favor Sunday sales. Hughes said some consumers are not aware of the adverse consequences of Sunday sales, which he says would increase costs so much at the low-profit package stores that as many as 300 stores could go out of business.
The poll question received overwhelming support because the adverse consequences were not mentioned, Hughes said.
"It's like asking people if they like free beer," Hughes said. "I don't think you're going to get a negative answer.''
Although the Sunday sales ban has been repeatedly described through the years as a "blue law, " Hughes says that is clearly incorrect. State historian Walter Woodward has noted that a blue law was the name given to laws that were considered harsh and unreasonable in the 1600s, and the word "blue" refers to the severity of the punishments. The laws considered blue laws today, he said, might not date back that far.
In 1979, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state law that required certain stores to close on Sundays was unconstitutional. It noted that the blue laws, codified in 1650, had been regularly modified since 1902. The court concluded that the laws were arbitrary and discriminatory because two-thirds of the state's workforce was allowed to work on Sundays.
Besides Tallarita, Alaimo and others, Sunday sales have received support from Edward Stringham, a professor, economist and alcohol researcher. Stringham is co-author of a book titled, "No Booze? You May Lose: Why Drinkers Earn More Money Than Nondrinkers."
Stringham's study said that men who drink earn 10 percent more than nondrinkers, and that women who drink earn 14 percent more than nondrinking women.
"Keeping these customers in Connecticut on Sundays means more tax revenue for the state," Stringham wrote in The Courant.
The Courant's Daniela Altimari spoke to House Republican leader Larry Cafero in the state Capitol press room late Friday afternoon.
She reports: Cafero received a call from Malloy's chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, informing him that Malloy was going to propose legislation legalizing Sunday liquor sales.
"There's a lot of people that said 'Where were you last year on all this?''' Cafero told reporters at the Capitol Friday afternoon. "I don't know if he learned any new data that changed his mind or if it was a stragetic decision that he had enough on his plate last year.''
Cafero said his caucus is split on the question. "I think the whole issue of Sunday sales was never along partisan lines,'' he said, adding that it is a "very controversial issue [with] good points made on both sides."
Cafero said he "leans toward" allowing Sunday sales but added, "I have a lot of friends who own liquor stores. It's a mom and pop shop, they work five, six days a week, and they say 'now you're going to make me stay seven days a week.' ''
Cafero also said that he backs looking at other restrictions on the pricing and sale of alcohol in the state.
"For so long, these things were dying in committee and a vast majority of legislators did not have the opportunity to weigh in on it,'' Cafero said. "If both the mark-up issue and the Sunday sales issue are brought to the floor of the House, full debate, vote up or down, then that's the way it should go."
Cafero said Malloy's advocacy for Sunday sales of alcohol could be the "tipping point" for an issue that has come up many times in the past, only to be shot down. This year, the governor said he'll put the full weight of his office behind the proposal, as opposed to last year, when his support of the measure was far more passive.
"The governor's office, regardless of who holds it, has enormous powers and could be very influential in the passage of legislation,'' Cafero said.