AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would allow bars and restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages three hours earlier on Sundays when St. Patrick’s Day fall on that day, as is the case this year, stalled Tuesday in the Maine House of Representatives.
The bill, LD 216, sponsored by Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, would require passage by two-thirds votes this week in both the House and Senate, as well as Gov. Paul LePage’s signature, in order to take effect as an emergency measure in time for this year’s celebration of Irish heritage. A House vote Tuesday failed to muster two-thirds support, leading House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, to ask that LD 216 be tabled and to request a roll-call vote.
The House and Senate do not return to session until Thursday, greatly decreasing the likelihood that LD 216 could take effect by Sunday.
Hobbins’ bill encountered minimal opposition during a public hearing and work session of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. However, it lurched into a stew of political controversy after Republican legislators and Gov. Paul LePage complained that Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature, were moving it toward passage faster than LePage’s proposal to repay the state’s debt to its hospitals.
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, which received its first legislative hearing Monday.
That could be a moot point with LD 216, because Maine law allows LePage 10 days after the Legislature sends him a bill to sign it, veto it or let it take effect without his signature. Even if the Maine House and Senate pass the bill with two-thirds majorities Thursday, LePage would have to sign it into law well before the 10-day period expires to make it effective in time for St. Patrick’s Day this year. The next time St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday will be in 2019.
Owners of Irish pubs in Maine, including Dan Steele of Brian Boru in Portland, asked legislators to amend Maine’s law that prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages before 9 a.m. on Sundays. Hobbins’ bill would allow bars to start serving alcoholic drinks at 6 a.m.
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, he told the Bangor Daily News last week. 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.”
Steele said he hires extra staff to accommodate customers who arrive early on St. Patrick’s Day.
Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, has fought for passage of LD 216 on behalf of Steele, who is one of her constituents. After the bill was tabled in the House on Tuesday, she expressed frustration that “small-business owners, who asked us to do something simple to help them, got caught in the political crossfire” of the hospital debt repayment debate.
Assistant House Minority Leader Alexander Willette, R-Mapleton, said his constituents are frustrated, but for different reasons.
“We can’t speculate about the bill’s ultimate fate, but I can say that many of our members have been getting feedback from their constituents that they’re frustrated with the legislature’s priorities,” he said. “They want to see job creation and fiscal leadership.”