Blue Law Changes Feared, Welcomed

Mar 12, 2012

In the past, attempts to reform Connecticut’s blue laws have been dominated by one simple issue – Sunday alcohol sales. But the bill before the legislature this year takes the debate much further. And it has the package store industry in uproar. WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports.

Here at the Legislative Office Building with the session in full swing, many of the conversations are about one thing.

“This has been such a significant issue in the building.”

Carroll Hughes is a lobbyist for the Connecticut Package Stores Association. He says since the bill debuted at the General Law Committee last week, he’s been very busy.

"People stop you all the time. If I leave the cafeteria and go to the men’s room it takes me 15 minutes to get there, 15 minutes to get back.”

Hughes’ association has always stood firm in the past against the prospect of Sunday sales, but he says the bill that Governor Malloy has proposed to modernize the blue laws is so radical that conceding Sunday sales has become almost a minor issue. The legislation would also change the way distributors are allowed to set prices, alter the minimum pricing law, allowing much greater case discounts, increase the number of package store licenses an individual can hold, and allow convenience stores to sell beer.  Hughes says there’s a good reason alcohol sales up until how have been different from any other retail commodity in the state.

“We may be anti-competitive in the way we look, but we were created by the state of Connecticut because that’s what they wanted – they wanted to have extreme control.” 

Now, he says, this bill amounts not to incremental change, but to suddenly pulling the rug out from under a whole industry.

“If they were all in one town and were going to close a factory that had 7,000 jobs, we’d be tripping over ourselves to go help them. Just because my people are dispersed, they’re not less important.” 

“I think the concerns are fabricated. You know, the sky is falling, the sky is falling.”

Of course, Hughes is not the only lobbyist with a dog in this fight. Stan Sorkin, President of the Connecticut Food Association represents grocery stores and supermarkets. He says his members, large and small, want the right to sell on Sundays and compete more fairly with package stores. 

“A few years ago they said if you had Sunday sales, 500 stores would go out of business. Now if you have to compete on price, 500 stores will go out of business. That is unheard of. You don’t lose that many stores in a business environment just because the ground rules are changed a little bit and you’ve got to compete on price.”

Convenience stores too, are delighted with the bill, which would allow them to sell beer for the first time. Cathy Barber represents the New England Convenience Stores Association

“Picking up what is, in the United States, the third largest sales category in store, could help save a lot of our businesses.”

She points to a recent statistic that showed beer sales in Connecticut as 49th in the nation per capita. Barber says that just means good news for Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island. 

“Other states are doing a superb job of serving the needs of Connecticut residents. So we are not only losing the sales, but we’re losing all the related tax revenues, and to me that’s astonishing.”

Jim Pabich is stocking the shelves at his Simsbury package store, West Street Wines and Spirits. He says this bill, which is enthusiastically supported by liquor wholesalers, doesn’t address some of the real problems, because it doesn’t address the exclusive territories granted to wholesalers. 

“On the retail end, we’ve done nothing but foster competition. I mean we get to hold onto 50 cents while one tier up, the wholesalers -- essentially they have monopolies. They’re not even being looked at.”

Pabich believes the changes to minimum bottle pricing and bigger case discounts will allow big retailers to undercut the mom and pop store, and actually reduce choice for consumers. 

“If you’re telling me that I need to buy 25 cases to get the same price that I could have gotten before at one or two cases, we’re going to have to think about how we pare down our inventory. That’s not good for the consumer, it’s not good for the retailer.”

Pabich has been in the business 17 years - he says Connecticut’s unique system has worked well in the past to protect the public.

"When you generalize and you say, well, you know Connecticut is inefficient because it’s run by a bunch of mom and pops, people have their own self-interest on the line. My name is on top of the license. It’s a controlled product and it’s in my own self-interest to make sure that gets dispensed safely.”

Half an hour away in Torrington, Nelson Gonzalez is serving a customer at his store, The Grog Shop. He says he’s looking forward to the changes the bill will bring.

“I think that Governor Malloy’s bill is really just modernizing and bringing it up to date to how the real world works.”

He says the current, highly regulated system actually leads to corruption – something he hopes more competition will drive away.

“Right now the business has a lot of, you know, illegal buying groups, kickbacks from distributors. And that’s hurting everybody, because all that kickback, all that little stuff, is added to the cost of the case.”

Gonzalez, a New York native who moved here ten years ago, concedes he’s minority voice among package store owners in the state.

“People don’t like change. Not being from Connecticut and being from New York, New York is always evolving.  It’s time for change and I think this is just really going to have people take a look at their own business and see, how can I make my business better, and that’s always good.”

Proponents say Sunday alcohol sales will contribute to a growth in business, and the evidence from other states does point that way. Georgia changed its Sunday sales law in November last year, and some towns there report sales up about seven percent. But many of Connecticut’s package store owners say the other changes in this bill are certain to mean job losses and the closure of small businesses.

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.