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    Wednesday, June 19, 2024

    Bid to sell wine in Conn. grocery stores blocked

    A controversial move to allow Connecticut supermarkets to sell wine was blocked Tuesday by a key legislative committee. (LEA SUZUKI/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

    A controversial move to allow supermarkets to sell wine was blocked Tuesday by a key legislative committee.

    The general law committee reached its deadline without voting on the proposal, meaning it was defeated. While any proposal can resurface in an amendment, the lack of a vote by the committee that oversees alcohol marks a major blow to the high-profile proposal.

    “It’s a pretty big setback,” said Jean M. Cronin, chief lobbyist and executive director of the Connecticut Package Stores Association. “The committee just wasn’t receptive of the message. It’s not an access issue. People have plenty of opportunity with the locations and the hours that package stores are open to get these products. … The committee of jurisdiction heard all that testimony and couldn’t muster the votes to get the bill out of committee. Doing a head count, they realized they did not have the votes.”

    The supermarkets argued that consumers were pushing for the idea as a convenience so they could buy wine in one-stop shopping instead of making a separate trip to the package store.

    But the state’s 1,250 independent package stores fought back strongly against the proposal, saying that some stores could go out of business because wine is their most profitable product. The package stores portrayed the clash as a David vs. Goliath battle with small, family-owned retailers up against major players like Stop & Shop, a gigantic Dutch corporation with more than 60,000 employees and billions in annual revenues.

    More than 350 people submitted testimony on House Bill 5918 to the general law committee, and hundreds of package store and supermarket supporters filled the atrium last month at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

    The supermarkets, their lobbyists and an economics professor argued that the package stores would not be hurt by the proposal.

    But Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican who is among the longest-serving legislators, said the argument that the package stores would not be hurt was “unbelievable” to him. He said he has seen local hardware stores impacted by their larger competitors in various industries.

    “The big fish gobble up the little fish,” Kissel said last month. “I don’t think this is a good direction for the state of Connecticut.”

    While the package stores have fought numerous battles through the years regarding Sunday sales and extended hours, they said the latest proposal marked the biggest threat to their livelihood.

    Stepping up their campaign this year, the supermarkets hired one of the most prominent lobbying firms at the state Capitol, known as Gaffney Bennett, and a key figure for the firm is former House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a well-known political leader who became a lobbyist after retiring from the state legislature. Aresimowicz could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

    The two sides argued over the convenience of the consumers, but the package stores argued that many stores are currently open 92 hours per week – the maximum time allowed by the state over seven days in a highly regulated, age-restricted industry.

    Opponents of the bill have said that they were not exaggerating that stores would close. James Valentine, co-owner of the multistore Connecticut Beverage Mart, said previously that he was forced to close the New Britain store in January 2021 after losing business to a Total Wine superstore and Costco that are each about one-half mile away on either side of the package store. The owners said they were paying $70,000 in annual property taxes for their 13,000-square-foot store, which was losing money.

    Known as the land of steady habits, Connecticut has one of the strongest systems in the country for package stores. By contrast, 42 states and Washington, D.C., currently allow wine sales in grocery stores. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont all allow wine sales in supermarkets, but Rhode Island and New York do not.

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