Old debate renewed: Liquor retailers face off on lifting Sunday sales ban

The familiar battle-lines were drawn Monday: Package store owners from border towns complained they lose money because they can’t open on Sundays, while a broader-based liquor retailers’ association said ending Connecticut’s Sunday sales ban would drive mom-and-pop shops out of business.

Still, about 100 people filled the Program Review and Investigations Committee hearing room for an hours-long debate over lifting the ban, with the promise of extra tax revenue at a time of fiscal crisis lending issue a new urgency.

Connecticut is one of three states to forbid Sunday sales at package stores, although wineries, restaurants and bars are still permitted to sell alcohol on Sundays. Proposals to lift the ban have not made it out of committee for at least 12 years, said  Rep. Kathleen M. Tallarita, D-Enfield, a longtime advocate.

Meanwhile, Connecticut’s three neighbors all have revised their laws in recent years to allow or expand the sale of beer, wine and liquor seven days a week.

“I can tell you conclusively that this harms my business dramatically,” said Bruce Nevins, owner of WineWise in Greenwich.

It’s border-town liquor retailers like Nevins who are in favor of lifting the ban–but even they don’t all agree. Tallarita, said the 11 package stores in her town are split on the issue.

Carroll Hughes, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Package Store Association, says nearly every store he represents is against the proposal because it would mean the owners would have to work more hours, insurance prices would increase and their utility bills would spike.

Carroll estimates 300 of the states 1,100 package stores would close. And for those who are able to remain open, it will cost them an extra $14,000 a year to open the extra day.

“These owners aren’t making more than $35,000 a year and are working 70-hour weeks. They can make more at McDonalds,” he said.

But Nevins isn’t buying Carroll’s argument, saying his group represents “a tiny special-interest trade group, a few hundred members, a minority.”

Carroll says almost all of the package stores in the state are members of the Connecticut Package Store Association, but Nevins and Tallarita doubt so many support limiting the days they can open.

Police chiefs also oppose lifting the ban, said West Hartford Police Chief James J. Strillacci of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, arguing that opening the stores on Sunday would harm public safety by increasing domestic violence, car accidents and other crimes.

“We think encouraging more drinking is not good public policy,” Strillacci said.

Others support the Sunday sales because of the potential revenue it would generate during a time the state is looking to close its deficit. A committee staff report from December says Sunday sales could generate up to $8 million a year by keeping customers instate and paying taxes on Sunday sales.

But Carroll says people are crossing the borders every day of the week because of better retail prices.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States said they believe in the 13 states that opened for Sunday sales since 2002, the 5 to 7 increase in tax revenue “is completely attributable to opening Sunday.”

Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Connecticut Supreme Court have ruled that the decision to ban Sunday sales is up to the legislature. The committee has until Friday to decide whether this is the year to change the law.