On Sunday liquor sales, a lobbyist fights time and trends

Time and trends are not on his side. But Carroll Hughes has been lobbying for decades to make sure that package store owners don’t work late on weeknights or at all on Sundays. He won’t quit now.

On Tuesday, he again gathered his clients, the slowly decreasing ranks of package-store owners, the “moms and pops,” as he calls them, to rally once more in favor of the last of the New England blue laws.

Carroll Hughes

Carroll Hughes

The annual battle against Sunday liquor sales revolves around Hughes, who has been pitching ideas and rounding up votes at the Connecticut General Assembly since Ella Grasso was governor.

On this issue, it is tempting to paint the graying Hughes as the Willie Loman of lobbying, desperately trying to sell something out of fashion, struggling to get through one more season.

But Hughes is not desperate. He has dozens of other clients, and his firm’s annual revenues of $1 million place Hughes & Cronin Public Affairs among the ten richest lobbying concerns at the Connecticut General Assembly.

“Everybody thinks this is all I do,” Hughes said, watching his clients fill the largest hearing room at the Legislative Office Building.

Still, it’s been a long road with the package store owners. They signed on with him in 1976, when his son, Josh, was two. Josh now is married, a father and a lobbyist at Hughes & Cronin.

Hughes is trying to get them another year of not facing pressure to open on Sundays. He’s done well, given that the Connecticut Supreme Court called the legality of blue laws into question in 1979.

Since then, booze is just about the last thing that can’t be purchased from a Connecticut retailer on Sunday, the second busiest shopping day of the week. Only 14 states now prohibit the sale of hard liquor on Sundays. Connecticut is one of only three states that do not allow the Sunday sales of beer and wine.

The industry has had other losses at the General Assembly.

The statutory closing time of 8 p.m. has slid back to 9 p.m., but it still is a shock to visitors from Massachusetts and New York, who are used to longer shopping hours.

The minimum-markup law, which limited competition on price, was repealed in 1981 after a five-year fight by Hughes. He warned that repeal would put 900 stores out of business.

“We had 2,100. Now, we have 1,100,” Hughes said. “So, I’ve been through this in a different way.”

This year, Hughes is using the same arguments he has deployed in other years. The revenue increase would be minuscule, possibly offset by the social cost of more liquor sales.

Representatives of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association testified against the bill Tuesday. The association happens to be another client of Hughes & Cronin.

He also is supported by the unionized drivers for the region’s beer wholesalers. More package stores mean more driving routes, and that means more jobs.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is not pushing for Sunday sales, which would yield some badly needed additional tax revenue for the state, though estimates of how much have fluctuated wildly over the years.

But unlike his predecessor, M. Jodi Rell, Malloy has announced publicly and told Hughes personally he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

At the Capitol, that’s a big club missing from Hughes’ bag this year.

Betty Gallo, who has been lobbying nearly as long as Hughes, said perennial issues sometimes reach a tipping point. Anything that can bring in revenue gets a little bump this year.

She is worried about a bill that would expand the use of traffic control cameras, allowing law enforcement to give out traffic tickets on the basis of video surveillance. Her client, the American Civil Liberties Union, is opposed to the practice.

Will the ability to generate a few more dollars for municipalities and the state lose her votes?

“It’s one thing that’s changed, and it can make all the difference,” she said.

The ACLU, incidentally, is agnostic on the question of Sunday sales of beer, wine and spirits, even though the prohibition dates back to 1650 and is based on keeping the Christian Sabbath.

Hughes knows he is losing some support this year. The question is how much.

Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, an opponent of Sunday sales in years past, is ready to vote in favor.

He said he understands that opening on Sundays is a burden for small package stores, who will lose beer sales to supermarkets if they choose not open for a seventh day.

But Maynard said he no longer can accept the argument that small package stores deserve protection that is not afforded to small sporting goods stores, who compete with big-box retailers.

“I think the time has come,” he said.