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Will the Recession Doom the Last Sunday Blue Laws?

5 minute read
Paige Bowers

A handful of state legislatures have declared it’s closing time for Sunday alcohol sales restrictions, saying an extra day of sales could give their foundering budgets a much-needed shot of revenue. Those states — Georgia, Connecticut, Texas, Alabama and Minnesota — enjoy overwhelming voter support for an extra day of sales, but face opposition from members of the Christian right, who say that selling on Sunday undermines safety and tears apart families. “During times of economic stress, our families are under enough pressure,” says Jim Beck, the president of the Georgia Christian Coalition. “I don’t think we need to add even more pressure to those families by passing this law.”

But proponents of Sunday sales argue that state budgets are under plenty of pressure too and that by allowing people to buy beer, wine or liquor on Sunday at grocery or package stores, states could reap millions of dollars in tax revenue. Besides, as President Roosevelt learned in the 1930s when he successfully repealed Prohibition, drinks have a way of keeping hopes high when things look bleak. In Johnathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, the President recognized that legally-procured cocktails were the way to keep spirits high when Americans were trying to get used to putting their trust into the nation’s crumbling banking system again. And, it could be argued, the sales also helped stimulate the economy in the middle of the Great Depression. (See TIME’s “25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis”)

“[Sunday sales legislation] always comes bubbling up when the economy goes south,” says David Laband, an Auburn University economics professor who authored Blue Laws: The History, Economics, and Politics of Sunday-Closing Laws. Blue laws, which restrict shopping of any kind on Sunday, date back to the colonial era, Laband says. However, those laws gradually died off as economic forces made some states realize that they could stand to gain by having stores open on Sunday. For example, the entry of women into the workforce in World War II made weekend shopping a necessity. (See pictures of Denver, Beer Country.)

“Slowly and systematically we’ve seen these laws lifted in past century, even more so when there has been an economic downturn,” Laband says. “States realize that consumers will migrate to a place where they can buy what they want. And whatever their reasons are for not wanting to sell on Sunday, these states realize they’re paying a price for it in foregone tax revenues. So once the economy goes bad, then the cost of their policies are apparent to them.”

Beck argues that when you’re facing a budget shortfall in the billions, the extra revenue from an added day of alcohol sales is just a drop in the bucket. His opponents, however, insist it is significant. “At least it’s a drop,” says Georgia Senator Seth Harp, who introduced a bill proposing local referendums on Sunday sales. “Maybe it’s even a cup full. But right now, I’d like to have a couple of cups full than nothing at all.” (See what businesses are doing well despite the recession.)

Three states — Georgia, Connecticut and Indiana — ban the sale of beer, wine and spirits, while 15 ban only liquor sales. Connecticut is considering repealing its ban because it has been losing revenue to New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, three neighboring states that repealed Sunday sales bans in 2003. Texas is also reconsidering Sunday sales bans of liquor, with three bills in the state’s Senate, two of them specific to sales along the Texas-Mexico border. “States are seeing Sunday sales as a positive way to raise revenue without raising taxes or cutting valuable programs,” says Ben Jenkins, spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. “That, along with consumer demand, is driving this change.”

And though religious groups have sounded off about how Sunday sales are harmful to families, legislators such as Harp are reaching out to them by adding enforcement provisions designed to crack down on store owners who sell to minors. In a state like Georgia, where more than two-thirds of residents say they’d like to be able to buy a six pack on the sabbath, Harp’s efforts may just win his bill votes, even though Governor Sonny Perdue, a teetotaler, said he’d veto any bill that came across his desk.

But Perdue won’t be in office forever and anti-Sunday sales advocates across the nation may realize the tide is turning against them too. “People have got a lot of activities that occupy their time, attention and affection on Sunday and shopping is one of them,” Laband says. “Churches have had to come to grips with that; they haven’t drawn a line in the sand and said ‘You have to go to church.’ So the trend is clear that states will do away with some of these alcohol prohibitions. It will happen. It’s just a matter of when.”

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