Sunday liquor sales: Bills would lift ban

April 20, 2009 9:09:49 AM PDT
David Hernandez owns several liquor stores near the Texas-Mexico border. On any given Sunday while he's behind the counter doing paperwork, he'll watch customers drive up, try the door and find it locked. Then they'll drive off toward Mexico to buy a bottle of whisky or tequila, a sale that could have been his if Texas allowed him to be open Sundays.

Now Hernandez is fighting to repeal Texas' Prohibition-era "blue law" ban on Sunday distilled liquor sales, saying he could boost business by 15 percent. The hardest fight isn't necessarily with teetotalers and social conservatives. It's with other liquor store owners who believe Sunday sales would barely cover the cost of staying open.

Texas state lawmakers are considering three bills that would lift the ban.

A bill by Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, would allow sales statewide from noon to 6 p.m. Two others, by Rep. Victoria Gonzales of McAllen and Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, both Democrats, would allow Sunday sales from noon to 9 p.m. in the 15 counties that border Mexico.

Hernandez, who owns Holiday Wine & Liquor stores in McAllen, Edinburg, Weslaco, Mission and Harlingen, says he competes for customers with duty-free shops on the border and liquor stores in Mexico.

"It's a five- or 10-minute drive," Hernandez said. "They would prefer to shop in Texas, but we don't give them a choice."

Blue laws in the U.S. restricting sales and shopping on Sundays date to colonial times, although many have been repealed as morals changed and Sunday shopping became an economic necessity. Only 14 states still ban Sunday liquor sales. Last month, Arkansas repealed its statewide ban, allowing counties to decide.

Texas allows Sunday beer and wine sales at grocery stores, and liquor can be sold in bars and restaurants. Only liquor stores are shut out.

The statewide Sunday ban dates at least to 1935, when lawmakers wrote what is now known as the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code at the end of Prohibition. The code's purpose was "for the protection of the welfare, health, peace, temperance and safety of the people of the state."

One group pushing to lift the ban is the Washington, D.C.-based Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which represents alcohol producers and marketers across the country.

"Times have changed. People have changed," said council spokesman Ben Jenkins, noting the ban's roots in religion. "We don't feel the government should mandate which day is the Sabbath."

Distillers say lifting the ban would be an economic boon. They predict Sunday sales statewide could generate up to $115 million in new sales and up to $10.8 million in tax revenue for the state.

Fred Marosko is executive director of the Texas Package Store Association. His group opposes lifting the ban and disputes the economic impact.

Texas has about 2,300 licensed liquor stores. Most owners believe that once sales got past an initial spike, they would level off to current levels, stretching the current six-day sales rate over seven, Marosko said.

"The net result is probably zero," Marosko said. "This is not a package store bill. This is driven by suppliers who are really out-of-staters."

But Jenkins said the bill don't require stores to open Sunday and they could stay closed if they choose. Marosko said that's not realistic. Once a competitor opens, all stores in an area would probably have to as well.

There are moral objections to making a change as well.

According to a February poll commissioned by the liquor stores group, 67 percent of Texans oppose Sunday liquor sales. The poll surveyed 801 registered voters. Opposition based on religious and moral reasons ran at 61 percent.

While the conservative group Texas Eagle Forum has not taken a strong position, President Cathie Adams said she would be surprised if the Republican-controlled Legislature lifted the ban.

"I can't imagine the House or Senate doing that. Texas is first and foremost in a family environment. If people want to imbibe, they can do it six days a week," Adams said.

"I think the way it is is just fine," Adams said. "Don't tread on our traditions."

So far, none of the bills has gotten far in the Legislature.

The House bills had committee hearings March 25, but no votes were taken. The Senate bill not yet been given a hearing. With the Legislature scheduled to adjourn on June 1, time is running short.

Hernandez said he'll keep watching would-be customers buy from someone else.

"Sports bars are open, grocery stores sell beer and wine. Every alcoholic beverage is available on Sunday except liquor from liquor stores," Hernandez said.

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