The Senate voted Tuesday to approve Sunday alcohol sales in supermarkets and package stores, leaving Indiana as the only state with an across-the-board ban on Sunday sales.
After a debate that lasted just more than an hour, the Senate voted 28-6, with all six negative votes coming from Republicans. Two Democratic senators were absent.
The measure now goes to Gov.Dannel P. Malloy, who will sign the bill into law because the proposal was his initiative in this legislative session.
"This bill is a bold step ... toward increasing free-market activities for alcohol sales in Connecticut,'' said Sen. John Kissel, a Republican from the border town of Enfield. "Nobody thought this was going to be addressed this year in Connecticut.''
Sen. Toni Boucher, a Wilton Republican who has nearly 30 package stores in her seven-town district in Fairfield County, said the issue had become so controversial in recent years that some lawmakers believed that Sunday sales would never happen. But the issue changed dramatically this year when Malloy pushed the issue.
"I had become convinced that I should never support a Sunday sales bill until this year,'' said Boucher, noting that the local package stores in her district now favor the change. "My usual value is ... the free-market should determine."
But some Senate Republicans rejected the concept, saying that consumers cross the border into other states mainly for lower prices, not because of Sunday sales. Sen. Len Fasano, the deputy Republican leader, voted against the bill for a number of reasons.
"I don't believe it's fair to say this bill was fairly negotiated,'' Fasano said. "In this case, the stores had to take what they got, which is Sunday sales, to get rid of the horrible stuff [to deregulate the industry and end minimum pricing]. That's not a compromise. ... I'm going to vote no because I think it's going to hurt small businesses. ... With all due respect, it's not going to be a revenue driver to any significant degree.''
In the old days, Fasano said, families spent more time with each other when stores were closed on Sundays.
"We actually communicated. We didn't text,'' Fasano said on the Senate floor. "That whole quaint atmosphere of our lives has disappeared. ... I guess I'm old-fashioned.''
Sen. Andrew Roraback, a Republican who represents 15 small towns in Litchfield County, also opposed the bill.
"We have gotten along for a long time without being able to purchase a bottle of liquor on Sundays,'' said Roraback, adding that the package store is often the main gathering place in the small towns in his district.
Several senators said they know that many mom-and-pop package stores will now be open seven days a week, and that will require more work by owners who are already operating on a small profit margin.
Legislative analysts are estimating that the bill would generate $5.2 million in additional tax revenue, which Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, said he believes is "pretty conservative.'' Doyle is co-chairman of the committee that oversees liquor issues.
Doyle noted that Malloy had offered a sweeping deregulation of the liquor industry, but the legislators were "just not exactly confident of what the ultimate outcome would be.'' As such, they sharply cut back most of Malloy's proposals and decided to create a 15-member, bipartisan task force to study the deregulation of pricing in the industry. The task force will look at the prices, taxes, volume discounts and minimum pricing in all surrounding states, and its report will be due byNew Year's Dayto be ready for the 2013 legislative session.
Malloy, for example, had proposed eliminating the state-regulated minimum price, which opponents said would have driven hundreds of package stores out of business because the small, low-margin, mom-and-pop stores would be outspent by the larger, wealthier, well-stocked, big-box stores.
Still, Sunday sales from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. will represent a huge change in the land of steady habits.
"This bill is one of the most radical reforms of our liquor statutes since the Great Depression,'' Doyle said.
Under the bill, each store can also sell one item per month at a limited price-discount — as much as 10 percent below cost.
Malloy was pleased with the vote but said that further work was needed.
The legislation to allow Sunday sales is "long past due and a good first step to making our state's package stores more consumer-friendly," Malloy said after the vote. "Our current laws have cost Connecticut businesses millions of dollars as consumers have flocked over our borders in search of more convenient hours and lower prices. Like many other initiatives I've put forward since taking office, this bill has a simple focus: making Connecticut competitive once again.''
Malloy added that he continues "to believe there's more we can do to lower the cost to consumers in our state. I look forward to the study proposed by the legislature. It's a good first step and one that I hope lays the foundation for future action. This much is clear: The more we can lower prices for consumers, the more competitive our businesses will be."
Besides alcohol sales, the bill calls for expanding the amount of items that can be sold in the package stores, which will now be permitted to sell olives, cheese and crackers.
Carroll Hughes, the chief lobbyist for the package stores for the past 36 years, said that the biggest moneymakers in the liquor industry — the manufacturers and distributors — went unscathed by the bill this year.
"Next year is a different story. Our upstream players and our other partners in the liquor business, including government, should plan on what they're going to contribute. This year was totally on package stores. We basically have contributed eight weeks — 55 days'' — 52 Sundays and three holidays.
Hughes has noted repeatedly that the Sunday sales prohibition was not a blue law. The blue laws were outlawed more than 30 years ago by the Connecticut Supreme Court. As such, the Sunday sales prohibition was an alcohol law, not a blue law.
The Sunday sales debate Tuesday was a surprise as the state Senate suspended the rules to take up an item that had not been officially ready for debate. If there had been no suspension of rules, the debate could not have begun until Wednesday.
Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said he visited all 26 package stores in his district, and all 26 were opposed to Sunday sales. Those stores usually get 55 days off per year, and now those days, including three holidays, will be working days.
"I never had a problem. I stocked up on Saturday,'' Cassano said of his purchases.
Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Fairfield favored the watered-down bill, despite pointing out problems: The small, independent pharmacies, bookstores, and coffee shops have largely gone out of business and have been replaced by huge chains; the owners of small package stores often work more than 60 hours a week, but their costs could go up by as much as 15 percent because they will be open on a seventh day, he said.
"The governor's bill did nothing to erase the monopoly that the beer distributors have,'' McKinney said. "There's a lot of inconsistencies. ... We're here telling them we know how to run their business better than they do.''Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun