The state House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday legalizing liquor sales on Sundays and holidays starting July 1 and modestly easing liquor price controls -- though far less than proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The measure, which passed 116-27 and now heads to the Senate, creates a new task force to study liquor pricing rules and also increases the number of package stores a permittee may own.
And a strange compromise was reached that still prohibits many convenience stores from selling liquor, but also scraps a plan to allow package stores to sell most snack foods.
The new legislation also would mean an extra $5.3 million in tax and fee revenues for the state's coffers, which continue to face deficit forecasts.
While the House debated for two hours, two trade groups -- one representing nonprofits, the other Connecticut vineyards -- held wine receptions in function rooms at the opposite ends of the third floor, one level above the House chamber.
"For me it's always been about fairness and consumer convenience, and I think that's what we've achieved with this bill," said Rep. Kathleen Tallarita, D-Enfield, one of the legislators who spearheaded the push to legalize Sunday liquor sales.
"This is a reasonable compromise before us," said Rep. Rosa C. Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, who added she feared an earlier version of the legislation would have given large grocery stores and other major chains a financial edge over small package stores.
Rebimbas, who is the ranking House Republican on the General Law Committee, added that the task force also is a crucial component of the bill, allowing the state to monitor closely all effects -- good and bad -- the legislation might produce.
"Folks, alcohol is a drug," said Rebimbas, whose aunt and uncle own a package store. "We're not trying to sell the cheapest pair of shoes. ... This is a drug that is regulated for a reason."
But Rep. Larry Miller, R-Shelton, who opposed the measure, predicted that it would harm small package stores, arguing they will be unable to afford the extra staff necessary to keep their businesses open on Sundays.
"I think we continue to stick our big nose into private enterprise and it generally end up hurting them or causing them more grief," he said.
No one would 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 per month for 10 percent below the cost of acquisition, while Malloy's most recent proposal was for five items.
Discounted items cannot be sold for less than 90 percent of the permittee's wholesale cost.
These two proposals, along with allowing more convenience stores to sell beer, were fought most fiercely by the lobby for Connecticut's package stores.
The final bill "was certainly balanced as far as my members were concerned," Carroll Hughes, executive director of the Connecticut Package Store Association, said afterward. But some of the earlier proposals "would have devastated the industry," particularly allowing large chains to own as many as nine stores. "It would have put people with unlimited financial resources into the business."
Hughes added that the legislature should have considered allowing package stores to benefit through discounted prices at the wholesale level, a concept he hopes receives more attention in the future. "We had our time on the dissecting table this year," he said.
Malloy issued a statement Thursday evening calling the bill "a good first step."
"Under the current law, we lose millions of dollars over the border every Sunday. It's a bad policy that inconveniences consumers and makes businesses less competitive. But after tonight, there will be an additional 55 days where sales will be permissible."
The governor added that "I continue to believe there's more we can do to make our package stores more consumer friendly. I am encouraged that the legislature will study this issue, a sign I hope that there may be more we can accomplish in the near future. This much is certain -- the more we can lower prices for consumers, the more competitive our businesses will be."
The bill specifically allows liquor permittees to sell alcohol from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays, on the Memorial, Independence and Labor Day holidays, and on Mondays following any Christmas and New Year's Day that falls on a Sunday.
The measure was amended on the House floor to allow liquor stores to sell olives, and various fruits used to complement drinks.
But because the final bill scrapped a provision that would have made it easier for liquor stores that also sell gasoline to market liquor, legislators decided against allowing package stores to sell snack foods -- a staple of many convenience stores.
"I think the snack language really concerned people in a real way who are in the convenience store business," said Rep. Joseph Taborsak, D-Danbury, co-chairman of the General Law Committee.
The bill also makes several changes to the annual fee for liquor and beer permits.
Grocery store beer permits would rise from $170 to $1,500 for stores with annual food and grocery sales of at least $2 million.
The fee for bowling and racquetball facility permits would drop from $2,250 to $1,000.
Democrats: 81 yes, 14 no, 4 absent. Republicans: 35 yes, 13 no, 4 absent.