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Booze Bill Brings out Bipartisanship in Maine Legislature
03/14/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

This story could be called "Bipartisanship Over Booze." Lawmakers today passed a bill that allows Maine alcohol sales to start at 6 a.m. when St. Patrick's Day falls on a Sunday - as it will this weekend. Normally, alcohol sales are barred until 9 a.m. on Sundays. As Patty Wight reports, the bill became an unexpected political football on the road to passage.

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As soon as lawmakers passed the bill, the press releases started flying. Democrats touted how lawmakers "cut through political rhetoric and voted in support of the working people of Maine." Republicans called the move a "harmless measure to protect cultural heritage."

Why the political party over passing a bill that allows just a few extra hours of partying one day of the year? Because this bill got caught up in some major political cross hairs.

"This bill was never, ever meant to be a front page story," says Democratic Rep. Barry Hobbins, of Saco, the sponsor of the bill. He says it became a political football in the partisan wrangling over when and how to pay the state's debt to hospitals.

Earlier this month Governor LePage said that until the Legislature approved his plan to pay hospitals, he would veto all bills. The governor specifically singled out the St. Patrick's Day bill, calling it "garbage." But after it passed both the House and Senate, LePage issued a written statement saying he'll sign the 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."

"It really is a very important thing to us, and to many other clubs, and to many, many people," says Laurence Kelly, the co-owner of Irish bar Brian Boru in Portland. He says lines wrap around his building on St. Patrick's Day morning as people wait to get in and celebrate.

But lest you think this bill is just about raising a few more glasses and getting a bigger belly of beer before lunch, Kelly says think again.

"It is a lot more - it means a lot more," Kelly says. "People aren't drunk. It's a festive, celebratory environment, and it certainly means a lot of revenue to us."

Hands down, Kelly says, St. Patrick's Day is the Boru's biggest day of the year - bigger than the Super Bowl. In those three morning hours alone, the bar makes $3,000 to $4,000.

Rep. Barry Hobbins says he's just glad everything all turned out all right for all involved - bars, restaurants, St. Patrick's Day revelers - and lawmakers. "You know, it was in a political log jam, and it's broken itself away from that," he says. " And hopefully this will kind of thaw the relationship with the governor and the Democrats in the legislature."

After all, they could hash out that hospital debt over a pint starting at 6 a.m. this Sunday.


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