Updated, March 19, 4:02 p.m.:
As the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee took up a bill that would allow liquor sales on Sundays, one committee member raised concerns about whether the legislation could make it easier for minors to access alcohol.
During Tuesday’s hearing on House Bill 421, which would allow for Sunday liquor sales to be expanded beyond beer and wine, state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, grilled Distilled Spirits Council spokesman Dale Szyndrowski about the potential for expanding liquor sales to grocery stores. Some critics of the bill say that abolishing the restrictions on Sunday liquor sales lays the path for grocery stores to also begin selling liquor.
“My concern is access to minors,” Gutierrez said during the hearing. “It’s a hell of lot easier to steal a little pint of alcohol, than a six-pack of beer.”
Szyndrowski said that although “market conditions may change in 15 or 20 years,” he does not see liquor expansion to grocery stores happening soon in Texas.
HB 421, filed by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would abolish the state’s “blue laws” limiting alcohol sales on Sundays and extend liquor sales by an hour both in the morning and the evening on Monday through Thursday, allowing sales from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
In addition to Szyndrowski, representatives from the Texas Hospitality Association and Total Wine and More testified Tuesday in favor of the bill. The Package Store Association testified against the bill, arguing that the cost of staying open on Sunday would eat up any sales and push out mom-and-pop liquor stores. Kevin Sanders, owner of Paradise Liquors in Denton County, spoke against the bill, arguing that it does not protect small businesses but instead "supports out of state and international companies."
The bill was left pending in committee.
Texans have 66 hours during the week to buy bottled liquor under current law, but two bills filed this session could allow 10 more hours of shopping time by letting liquor stores stay open on Sundays.
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, who have both received campaign donations from alcohol lobbying groups, have filed companion bills, Senate Bill 236 and House Bill 421, that would abolish the state's “blue laws” limiting alcohol sales on Sundays. The bills would also extend liquor sales by an hour both in the morning and the evening on Monday through Thursday, allowing sales from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Thompson "did not want any anti-consumer or anti-free-enterprise laws on the books,” a staffer for the representative said on Wednesday.
By changing the state's Alcoholic Beverage Code, Texas could have reaped $7.4 million in general revenue funds for the 2012-13 biennium, according to a report released by the non-partisan Legislative Budget Board. In the past nine years, 14 states have repealed Sunday liquor bans.
On Sundays, Texans are allowed purchase beer and wine from noon to 9 p.m. It is also legal to purchase liquor by the drink at restaurants and bars, but not by the bottle. “We don’t understand the equity in that,” said Alan Gray, executive director of Licensed Beverage Distributors.
But the legislation faces an unlikely opponent: some liquor stores themselves. The cost of operating stores an extra day and for longer hours, they say, would eat up any additional profits.
"We won't generate enough sales to handle the change," said David Jabour, president of Twin Liquors, a family-run chain based in Austin.
The 1,600 locally owned liquor stores in Texas would suffer the most from the growing overhead, said Lance Lively, executive director of the Texas Package Store Association, which represents hundreds of liquor stores across the state.
“I spoke with a liquor store in Columbus, Texas, and the woman said, ‘If we’re going to be forced, not by the law but by competition, [to stay open Sunday], it’s just not going to be cost-effective and we’re going to close our doors,” Lively said.
Jabour also cited a potential decline in the quality of labor at liquor stores, saying "higher-quality employees" seek positions that do not require them to work Sunday.
Supporters of the bill, primarily alcohol distributors, said the sales and tax revenue boost would make up for any other costs.
"[Opponents] say the increase in sales would be marginal, but when we look at what happens in other states that repealed blue laws, we see the opposite happens," Gray said. "Sunday has become the second-busiest shopping day of the week, and we think that it’s an inconvenience for all Texans not to purchase liquor by the bottle on Sundays.” Gray’s biggest client is Glazers, a Texas-based alcohol distributor with operations in 13 states.
Thompson’s staff noted that the legislation would not require liquor stores to open on Sundays, but Lively, of the Texas Package Store Association, disagreed. “If your competitors are open Sunday, it’s going to force you to be open, too,” he said.
Carolyn Beck, a spokeswoman for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, said that any change in law would have little impact on the commission's operations.
Similar bills have come before the Legislature in the last three sessions, but none have made it out of committee.
“There’s not agreement in the industry, so change comes slowly,” Gray said.