AUGUSTA — Political posturing by lawmakers and a veto threat by Gov. Paul LePage are endangering a bill that would allow bars to open three hours earlier this St. Patrick’s Day.
Pub owners and a trade group representing Maine restaurants aren’t happy about it — especially in Portland, where a large Irish-American community forms lines outside pub doors on the morning of the holiday in March.
At issue is a fast-tracked proposal to lift the state’s ban on sales of alcohol between 6 and 9 a.m. on Sundays when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday, as it does this year.
The Maine Restaurant Association supports the bill. So do Irish pubs and bar owners. So do state lawmakers, who have given it unanimous support in committee and in preliminary votes in the House and Senate.
So what’s the problem?
The bill, along with at least five others, has been ensnared in a political standoff.
LePage has vowed to veto every bill that comes to him if the Legislature doesn’t first pass his plan to repay the state’s Medicaid debt to Maine hospitals. That vow — clarified and contradicted several times — has ignited a public relations war between Democratic and Republican lawmakers. And the St. Patrick’s Day bill, sponsored by Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, has been pulled into it.
Republicans and LePage say it’s an example of the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s misplaced priorities. Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport, the Republican House leader, has said that the bill to allow “earlier drinking” is “flying through the House and Senate” while the hospital bill moves at a snail’s pace.
LePage has mentioned it several times, including this week in his weekly radio address.
The bill’s drinking component has made it a rich political target, but supporters say the bill is important to bar owners, who open early and close late on St. Patrick’s Day.
“It astonishes me that we can play politics with things as simple and straightforward as this bill,” said Dick Grotton, CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association. “This is a small-business issue. There are hundreds of restaurants and pubs that would be doing good business, and it’s not going to happen, because of politics.”
Daniel Steele, owner of the Brian Boru Irish Pub in Portland, was more pointed.
“We got thrown under the bus,” said Steele, who testified in support of the bill Feb. 20. “I got used and I’m not appreciative of it. … I got kicked in the stomach on this one.”
Technically, the bill isn’t dead. The House could send it to LePage by Tuesday. If he signs it, the prohibition will be lifted in time for the holiday March 17.
LePage said this week that “nothing gets done” until the hospital proposal is done. But the governor’s staff and Republican leaders have said that LePage may sign some bills, veto others or let some become law without his signature.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, declined Thursday to clarify the governor’s intentions for the St. Patrick’s Day bill.
She said, “I’m not going to speculate as to what he’s going to do with it.”
Republicans, who could join with Democrats to provide enough votes to override the governor’s veto, aren’t saying either.
Fredette said he supports the proposal but “the timing of the bill is unfortunate” because “it’s become a symbol of what we here are doing in the Legislature.”
Fredette declined to say whether Republicans would vote to override a veto and allow the law to take effect before March 17.
If LePage were to veto the bill, lawmakers could override it the next legislative day, Thursday. At that point, the bill would become law once it’s assigned a chapter number, which could happen that day.
LePage could allow the bill to become law without his signature. That takes 10 days, which means that bar owners — and their customers — wouldn’t benefit until March 17, 2019, the next time St. Patrick’s Day will fall on a Sunday.
On Thursday, Grotton, with the restaurant association, said Hobbins told him he was pulling the bill, because he didn’t want to give the governor “the pleasure of vetoing his bill.”
But Grotton said Hobbins might not withdraw the bill because “he’s under a lot of pressure from the Irish community to let the chips fall where they may so the (bar owners) know who to blame (if it fails).”
The news spread quickly to bar owners including Steele, at Brian Boru.
“I think this is endemic of Washington politics,” Steele said Friday. “Nothing gets done. The small man pays.”
On Friday, Hobbins said Grotton was mistaken. He said he didn’t plan to pull the bill but he may amend it.
Hobbins acknowledged that he is frustrated with the negative attention brought to his proposal.
“I obviously never thought a well-intentioned, innocuous bill would get demeaned this way,” he said. “It’s not a consumption bill; it’s about the St. Patrick’s Day tradition and helping small businesses.”
On that point, he and Steele agree.
Steele said he employs 25 full- and part-time workers. All of them, he said, work on St. Patrick’s Day.
“There are numerous bartenders who rely on these hours to make their money,” he said. “Single mothers in school, active Marine Corps reservists using tip money to pay college bills.”
Steele doesn’t know what will happen to the proposal but he’s considering reaching out to his nearby rival, the Ri Ra Irish Pub, to hold a joint news conference.
“They’re my competition, but I realize that a rising tide raises all ships,” Steele said. “If I can go down there and show solidarity with Ri Ra, then maybe those immature people up there (in Augusta) can sure as heck get together for (something) that is beneficial to everyone.”
He added, “But of course they won’t.”
Steve Mistler — 620-7016