AUGUSTA — After days of political wrangling, the Legislature passed a bill Thursday to allow bars to open three hours earlier this St. Patrick’s Day.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, would 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.

Hobbins said the bill is not a “consumption bill, but a small business bill.”

It passed in the House of Representatives 105-32. The Senate passed the bill 29-6.

The emergency bill will go to Gov. Paul LePage, who issued a statement hours after the legislative votes saying he will sign it – even though he had referred to it as “garbage” in a television interview this week and said he would veto it.

“Mainers know that I am a man of my word. But I am always open to reasonable suggestions,” the governor said. “I’m pleased to sign this bill as a gesture of goodwill and as a supporter of Maine’s fine establishments that wish to open earlier on St. Patrick’s Day.”

Hobbins said he met with the governor after LePage criticized the bill and received his assurance that he would sign it in time for it to take effect by St. Patrick’s Day.

“A lot has been said of the governor, but he looked me in the eye and we had a handshake agreement that he’d sign the bill as long as it was on his desk by 5 p.m. on Friday,” Hobbins said.

The bill was caught in a political debate between the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Republicans and LePage.

LePage had vowed to veto any bill that hit his desk if the Legislature didn’t pass his plan to repay Maine’s hospitals $484 million in overdue Medicaid reimbursements.

The governor appeared committed to rejecting the St. Patrick’s Day bill during an interview Wednesday on WPFO-TV, in which he called it “garbage.”

Hobbins said LePage told him that he regretted that the bill had been entangled in the debate over hospital debt. Hobbins said the governor was more willing to sign the bill after Democrats made a “good-faith” proposal to repay the hospitals.

On Monday, Democratic leaders introduced a proposal that would repay the hospital debt by Sept. 30. While there are significant differences between that plan and the governor’s, both sides have toned down the rhetoric and shown a willingness to work on a compromise.

In his statement Thursday about signing the St. Patrick’s Day bill, LePage again called on lawmakers to move forward on the hospital payment plan.

“The sooner the Legislature passes this bill, the sooner we can put Mainers back to work,” he said.

The St. Patrick’s Day bill, L.D. 216, won unanimous approval in committee and preliminary votes in the House and Senate before the political standoff.

Bar owners and the Maine Restaurant Association have fought for its passage. Dick Grotton, CEO of the restaurant association, expressed frustration last week that the measure had become so political.

Passage of the bill was uncertain as recently as Tuesday, after it failed to get enough Republican support to pass as an emergency measure — and take effect by Sunday — and Democratic House leaders tabled it.

That ultimately gave Hobbins time to meet with LePage and the restaurant association time to lobby lawmakers.

“I am glad that lawmakers saw this bill for what it is – a good bill boosting bartenders, wait staff and small businesses,” said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “I heard from dozens and dozens of workers in my district telling me about hundreds of dollars in lost wages and income if this bill had been rejected. The fact is, Republicans and Democrats alike were able to cut through the political rhetoric and vote in support of the working people of Maine.”

Hobbins said he submitted the bill on behalf of a constituent who is a member of the Emerald Society, an organization for police officers and firefighters of Irish heritage.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com