Legislation Leaves Old Liquor Laws in the Past

By Jared Hunt
Daily Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of West Virginia's so-called "blue laws" would come off the books under a bill advancing in the House of Delegates.

The House Judiciary Committee on Monday advanced a bill that would repeal the state's longstanding prohibition on Sunday retail liquor sales. The measure also would roll back the time retailers can begin selling alcohol on Sunday from the current 1 p.m. to 10 a.m.

That start time would apply to retailers, restaurants, bars and private clubs.

Bridget Lambert, president of the West Virginia Retailers Association, said several business groups in the state were pushing for the change.

"It was actually a bill that we worked with several different groups to pursue," Lambert said.

She said her group has been working with the West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association — which represents food service, lodging and convention and visitors bureaus — as well as several small, in-state wineries and distilleries to lobby for the change.

The bill was originally intended to simply roll back the Sunday sales start time.

Lambert said the local groups in particular were interested in moving back the 1 p.m. Sunday sales limit to accommodate golf course and brunch events whose organizers wished to offer alcohol.

But when the bill came before the House Judiciary Committee Monday, lawmakers decided to expand it to allow for Sunday liquor sales.

While lawmakers preserved the state's ban on liquor sales on Christmas, the change repeals a Sunday sales ban that has been on the books since the state's founding.

Lawmakers have discussed allowing Sunday liquor sales for many years, but it never has received serious attention.

While the bill still has a long way to go before passage, Lambert hopes lawmakers will continue to push for the change.

"We just view it as an antiquated law," she said.

West Virginia is one of just 12 states to ban Sunday retail liquor sales.

It's a part of the state's so-called "blue laws," which limit alcohol purchases. Until 2011, the state was one of a handful that still barred retail liquor sales on election days.

Most of these laws are relics of a bygone era.

According to Ben Jenkins of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, 16 states since 2002 have either repealed their Sunday sales bans or given counties and local governments the option to allow Sunday sales.

"Over the last decade, states around the country have modernized outdated alcohol laws to give consumers increased convenience and bring additional revenue to the state treasury," Jenkins said.

Jenkins said retailers could see revenue increases from Sunday liquor sales. That could mean more tax revenues for government, too.

He said Sunday is the second biggest grocery shopping day of the week, particularly for people in the 35- to 54-year-old demographic.

A Distilled Spirits Council study conducted about 10 years ago found that the state could see a 5 to 7 percent increase in liquor sales if the Sunday ban were repealed. That would equate to about an $800,000 to $1.1 million increase in annual liquor tax revenue, the study said.

Jenkins said since the study was conducted several years ago, it's likely the revenue numbers would be higher today.

Lambert said many retailers also feel it's a fairness issue.

While the state bans retail liquor sales, it allows restaurants and bars to sell liquor on Sundays.

"The spirits stores felt specifically that it was time to address it because you're able to go into a bar and drink on Sunday but you aren't able to buy a bottle and take it home to drink," Lambert said.

Lambert argued it is safer for customers to consume alcohol in their own homes rather than drive to a restaurant or bar.

She also said about two-thirds of the state's liquor outlets are chain stores like Rite-Aid. These stores are open on Sundays but have to rope off their liquor aisles to prevent sales.

While the Sunday sales bill has cleared the House Judiciary Committee, it still has to be approved by the House Finance Committee before it can be brought up for a full vote on the House floor.

House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, said he hasn't discussed the bill with committee members yet to gauge their interest. Depending on their feedback, he will decide whether to put it on a committee agenda for discussion.