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Sunday sales of liquor eyed

House to consider local option plan

The House today plans to consider whether to scrap the state's longstanding prohibition against Sunday sales of beer and liquor in stores, as lawmakers search for new tax revenues and try to protect merchants from out-of-state competitors.

The measure under consideration today would allow cities and towns to issue permits to stores that want to sell beer and liquor on Sundays, rather than rolling back the prohibition statewide. The House Ways and Means Committee approved the bill yesterday, but the prospects for final passage are uncertain: House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Governor Mitt Romney said they haven't taken a position.

State Representative Daniel E. Bosley, the North Adams Democrat who is pushing the change, said it isn't fair to restrict liquor stores when Massachusetts has already cleared the way for other retailers to operate on Sundays. Bosley's district borders New York, which lifted its Sunday sales ban in May.

"The sun comes out on a Sunday afternoon, and you want to barbecue with a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer, or company shows up, or you want to go to the beach -- what's the difference between that and buying a bottle of suntan lotion at the convenience store?" Bosley said. "If you use it responsibly, there should be no difference at all."

Bosley said he isn't sure how much tax revenue the state would gain from additional sales, though "intuitively, we know some revenue will be raised."

The Sunday restriction is one of the last vestiges of the so-called blue laws, promulgated by the Puritans to protect the sanctity of the Christian Sabbath and regulate public morality. The Legislature voided most blue laws in 1977. In 1990, it relaxed the alcohol rules to allow Sunday sales between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day and in cities and towns within 10 miles of neighboring states that permit Sunday sales, including New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont. A bill to eliminate the Sunday restriction entirely hasn't reached the floor of the Massachusetts House for several years, according to Bosley.

He said the current rule is unfair to liquor store owners, such as some in his district who are just beyond the 10-mile zone and losing business to competitors. Sponsors of the legislation and representatives of the liquor industry were unable to provide figures yesterday on how much Massachusetts residents buy from out-of-state liquor stores on Sundays.

Nevertheless, many small liquor store owners oppose the change because it would create pressure for them to work on what is now their only day off, according to the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, which represents roughly 700 owners. Frank Anzalotti, executive director of the group, says it will remain neutral in the debate.

Cano Gonzales, the manager of Michel's Wine & Spirits in Boston's Brigham Circle, said most owners are against lifting the Sunday rule.

"We won't see an increase in business," he said. "Right now, the amount you lose when you are closed on Sunday, you make up for it on Saturday."

Chris McDaniel, who manages Blanchard's Liquors in Allston, agreed that the change wouldn't boost business.

"A lot of people stock up on Saturday night," McDaniel said. "Instead of buying five 30-packs or a lot on Saturday night, people may buy less on Saturday and buy on Sunday, too."

Some religious leaders, meanwhile, are wary of yet another encroachment on what used to be a day of rest.

"It's a further lessening of the importance of Sunday as we knew it," said Gerald D'Avolio, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

Senator Michael W. Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat and co-chairman of the Government Regulations Committee, told State House News Service that he opposes the bill, but that there is "probably enough support here in the Senate" to pass it.

Nonetheless, Morrissey does not believe overall alcohol sales will increase if the state lifts the ban. "Our ability to consume alcohol is only so much," he said. "I don't see any real financial gain."

Supporters of the change say there is a rising tide against Sunday liquor restrictions: Twenty-seven states now allow Sunday sales. Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Delaware all relaxed or scrapped their restrictions in the past 18 months, according to the Washington-based Distilled Spirits Council, which has been lobbying legislators in Massachusetts.

Plagued by the same financial woes that are afflicting Massachusetts, legislators in Rhode Island, Kansas, and Washington state are considering relaxing or eliminating their blue laws.

"It doesn't seem to me that it makes sense in this day and age for the government to determine what day should be the Sabbath," said Peter H. Cressy, who heads the Distilled Spirits Council. "The real key here is convenience for the consumer in the modern world. The secondary benefit is that it will increase revenue for the state."

Bradford Turner, a 74-year-old wine aficionado who was prowling the aisles at Blanchard's yesterday looking for a high-quality red, said Massachusetts is behind the times.

"We had some out-of-town visitors this weekend, and we simply wanted to get a bottle of wine on Sunday, but couldn't do so," Turner said. He added that he's never driven out of state for alcohol, but wouldn't rule out doing so. "If I know I can get something I like, I will go out of my way," he said.

Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com.

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