AUGUSTA, Maine — Dan Steele thought his request to lawmakers on Feb. 20 was a straightforward one: Pass legislation that would allow his Portland bar, Brian Boru, to open at 6 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day this year, when the holiday falls on a Sunday.
“This is a small-business issue in a tough economy,” said Steele, a co-owner of the Portland bar. “This is about my employees. This is about tax revenue. This is about jobs.”
But the legislation he was advocating for, LD 216, has been swept into a political firestorm as Republicans seized on it as an example of a bill majority Democrats will shepherd through the Legislature while stalling other legislation, namely Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to repay Maine’s $484 million hospital Medicaid debt using the increased proceeds from a renegotiated wholesale liquor contract.
LePage mentioned the St. Patrick’s Day bill specifically during a radio interview last week in which he threatened to veto any legislation that comes before him until lawmakers sign off on his hospital debt repayment plan.
“If that’s more important than paying the hospitals, I think we have a problem,” LePage said on the George Hale and Ric Tyler Show.
He mentioned the bill again Friday in a similar context in his weekly radio address.
Democrats have responded that they’re not stalling the bill, and the party’s legislative leaders have said paying back Maine’s hospital debt is also a priority for them.
The St. Patrick’s Day bill didn’t start out as a contentious one, but Republicans started incorporating it into their discussions of LePage’s hospital debt bill after a Feb. 22 press release from the Maine Republican Party made the first mention of it.
Steele was one of only three people to submit written testimony on the bill. No one opposed the legislation, which would require passage as an emergency measure in order to take effect in time for St. Patrick’s Day this year.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that hosted the public hearing voted unanimously — with Republican and Democratic members on board — to support it. And both chambers of the Legislature have taken initial, unanimous votes in support of the measure.
Steele resents being caught up in a political fight and he’s concerned the bill won’t pass the Legislature in time to allow him to open Brian Boru at 6 a.m. for St. Patrick’s Day this year. It’s expected to come before the House for another vote Tuesday.
“A legitimate circumstance caught up in a bigger picture is thrown under the bus to the detriment of small businesses, to the detriment of their employees, to the detriment of the strength of a small business in a terrible economy,” he said.
Steele’s bar opens at 6 a.m. for breakfast every St. Patrick’s Day. It’s the time when many elderly patrons come in for their one pint of the year, Steele said. And it’s the time when Irish cultural events get started at his bar, including poetry readings and traditional Irish music.
“It is the most important day of the year for the Brian Boru,” he told members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. “Sales alone on this one day are four times the next biggest day of the year. We also spend many thousands of dollars on this day.”
But Maine’s law doesn’t allow bars or restaurants to serve alcohol until 9 a.m. on Sundays, depriving bars with a big St. Patrick’s Day business of the first three hours of the day when the holiday falls on a Sunday.
Those early hours are key to Brian Boru’s overall success on St. Patrick’s Day, Steele said, when he often adds five employees to his 25-employee payroll.
“I’m just one bar,” he said. “If you multiply this literally by hundreds throughout the state, you’re talking big money. I don’t know where they’re going to come up with the tax money they’re losing.”
“This is their Black Friday. This is when their books come together,” said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who serves on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. “We agreed as a committee that was a fair request.”
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Friday took action on another bill concerning hours for alcohol sales, voting 10-3 to approve an amended version of LD 15, a bill sponsored by Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, that would allow alcohol sales to start at 5 a.m. every day but Sunday.