Key committee embraces Sunday sales, not deregulation

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s sweeping reforms of liquor laws are about to be downsized: A key legislative committee is poised to side with Malloy and lift the ban on Sunday sales, while opposing his call to repeal controls on price and competition.

The question now is will Malloy accept the bipartisan consensus reached Tuesday by the General Law Committee, or will he direct his administration to lobby the General Assembly for a more ambitious, free-market bill?

“We’re still talking,” said Brian Durand, the Malloy aide leading the talking on alcohol reforms, as he left a meeting with General Law Committee leaders. “We had a good meeting with the chairs. We appreciate their willingess to continue working with us.”

But the Democratic co-chairs, Rep. Joseph Taborsak of Danbury and Sen. Paul Doyle of Wethersfield, said they have finalized the version of the bill that will voted on next week. The message they say they delivered to Durand: There is no support for broader changes sought by Malloy.

The position taken Tuesday night by General Law after two days of closed-door discussions are both a setback to the governor and a testament to his ability to shape the legislative agenda.

Last year, only two committee members favored allowing Sunday sales, and the committee’s leadership was opposed to even debating the issue in 2012. At Malloy’s insistence, Sunday sales now will pass with overwhelming support, leaders said.

“We have a package that we think we can pass out of committee that will have bipartisan support,” Taborsak said.

Next Tuesday, which is General Law’s deadline for reporting out bills, the panel will approve a revised bill allowing the retail sales of beer, wine and spirits from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.

Retail hours will remain unchanged on the other six days, when no beer, wine or spirits can be sold after 9 p.m.

No one will be allowed to own more than three package stores, up from the two in current law. But that is short of Malloy’s original limit of nine in a bill he proposed in January or six in a revision he released in February.

Minimum prices largely will remain intact with one notable exception: Retailers can sell one item a month for 10 percent below the cost of acquisition, while Malloy’s most recent proposal was for five items.

“The significant thing is right now it is a bipartisan bill,” Doyle said. “We’re confident as we can be up here of getting it out on Tuesday.”

The committee co-chairmen said the bill also will create a task force to study making other price changes, such as allowing wholesalers to offer quantity discounts. But until then, the best package stores can offer is one monthly discount.

“Consumers will be able to shop around and find deals at different stores and benefit from that,” Taborsak said. “But we are not going to experiment with quantity discounts.”

Quantity discounts are allowed in New York, but the committee leaders say it is unclear if it has resulted in lower prices for consumers.

“Before we go down this road, we want to have it thought out and reasoned,” Doyle said. “What if we screw it up? The premise of the bill is lower prices. What if it’s higher?”

Malloy proposed broad reforms in January for an industry that has been heavily protected against competition since the end of Prohibition, leading to higher prices than in many nearby states.

With chain ownership banned and prices and hours strictly controlled, the retail sale of beer, wine and spirits are dominated by small, locally owned stores.

Malloy originally proposed lifting most bans on competition. He would allowed chain ownership of up to nine package stores, and he wanted to give convenience stores the same right as grocery stores to sell beer. Doyle and Taborsak said their version will not allow beer sales in convenience stores.

The lobbyist for the package stores signaled in January that the ban on Sunday sales most likely was a lost cause, but that the debate would focus on the more arcane rules that control price and competition. If the General Law Committee version becomes law, the package stores will have retained key protections.