Cashier Kelly O'Heron of Torrington works at Ct. Beverage Mart in… (Rick Hartford, Hartford…)
From a distance, Jay Hibbard has been watching the emotional, never-ending debate on Connecticut's ban on the Sunday sales of alcohol in supermarkets and package stores.
As the eastern regional vice president for a national liquor manufacturers association in Washington, D.C., Hibbard came to Hartford this month for a key public hearing in an attempt to persuade legislators to lift the ban.
Despite watching the issue closely, Hibbard would not make a prediction on whether 2011 will be the year the ban is lifted.
"Your crystal ball is as good as mine," said Hibbard, who works for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, or DISCUS. "We hope we have provided the committee members with factual data, not anecdotal data. Connecticut is not a unique state. They all have their own nuances, but they are not dramatically different. The only thing in Connecticut that's arcane is the prohibition on Sunday sales."
State Senate Republican leader John McKinney, who favors keeping the ban, also would not offer a prediction on one of the most heavily lobbied issues at the Capitol.
"It will significantly hurt a lot of small businesses across Connecticut," McKinney said. "We have the most package stores per capita. We're different than any other state."
A package store, in New England parlance, is a store that sells alcoholic beverages for drinking off the premises.
Elsewhere in the country, laws governing Sunday alcohol sales vary widely. According to DISCUS, 36 states permit retail sales of distilled spirits on Sundays. Ben Jenkins, another DISCUS vice president, said that since 2002, 14 states — including New York, Oregon and Kentucky — have joined the ranks of those allowing such Sunday sales.
Connecticut's liquor law has its own nuances. And that's putting it mildly.
Connecticut is one of just three states, along with Indiana and Georgia, with an across-the-board ban on Sunday sales of beer, wine and liquor in stores and supermarkets. Beer and wine are legally sold on Sundays in Connecticut bars and restaurants.
The Connecticut Package Stores Assn. has blocked Sunday sales multiple times in the last five years. The mayors of the state's three largest cities — Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport — have argued to end the ban. It's an especially touchy subject in "border towns," those near neighboring states that have no such restrictions.
"If our legislators simply lifted this antiquated ban on Sunday alcohol sales, our financially struggling state could stop bleeding business — and sending tax revenue — to stores in neighboring states," Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch said last fall.
While the battle rages on, proponents of lifting the ban say they now have their best chance in years because of a new governor and new Legislature. Unlike the Republican former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, new Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, says he will sign a bill ending the ban if it reaches his desk.
Last Tuesday, the advocates of Sunday sales and package store owners squared off again, this time in front of the Legislature's general law committee in the golden-domed Capitol.
The package store owners maintain that allowing Sunday sales would not increase their business and would simply spread the sales over seven days instead of six.
"I just don't think we're going to do the additional sales that will cover my expenses," said Jim Ransford, owner of CT Beverage Mart in New Britain. "I just don't think it will help my bottom line."
Proponents said that changing the law would lead to increased sales and thus increased tax receipts in Connecticut, where Malloy and the Legislature are trying to close a projected deficit of $3.7 billion.
The liquor manufacturers say the state would receive an increase of $8 million a year in taxes. The Legislature's nonpartisan fiscal office puts the number at $3.6 million. The package stores association says the increase could be only $100,000.
In all, the committee heard more than seven hours of testimony by both sides. Lawmakers adjourned the hearing without a decision.