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Maine Bill Would Allow Bigger Stores to Open on Major Holidays
04/18/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine's so-called Blue Laws used to require that all stores remained closed on Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. But over the years, more and more of those restrictions have been eased. Lawmakers in Augusta are considering a bill that would allow further expansion of retail sales on the three major holidays. And, as A.J. Higgins reports, even one religious organization says it might be time to accept the idea.

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Under current law, stores of 5,000 square feet or less are permitted to open on the three major holidays, and they enjoy a competitive advantage over larger businesses, including big box stores, which must remain closed. The arrangement worked out pretty well for Doug Hawes, at least until he decided to expand his G&M Market in Holden.

"Last June 8th, I opened my new store, which brought me from 4,800 square feet to just under 10,000 square feet," Hawes said. "The three holidays that I'm not allowed to be open now used to my three most lucrative days that I can no longer be open."

Now Hawes is hoping that the Maine Legislature will cut him a break. A bill sponsored by Rep. David Johnson, an Eddington Republican, would double the size threshold to 10,000 square feet. That's still a far cry from the 100,000 square feet or more that many Wal-Marts and Home Depots cover, but large enough, says Johnson, to help quite a few Maine retailers.

"We want Maine-owned businesses to expand. We want them to be successful," Johnson said. "Extending the square footage to 10,000 square feet is completely within reason. This law is not intended to allow big-box chain stores to be open on these holidays."

Johnson made his case to members the Labor Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. But Sen. John Patrick, the committee's Democratic co-chair, says the conversation appears to be trending in the direction of opening up more businesses on more days.

"Well, I'm sure that if you open the Pandora's box they all will come sooner or later, the next thing you know we'll have more car dealers wanting to be open on Sundays and everything else," Patrick said. "So, I mean, you have to take it one step at a time, and if there's local stores out there - the smaller stores 10,000 and under - if they want a chance, maybe the committee will allow them to have that chance this year, I'm not sure."

"I certainly that we think we can have that discussion, we've had it before, other states have clearly gone that way," says Republican state Sen. Andre Cushing,

Cushing say that while Maine has long demonstrated a reluctance to allow larger stores to stay open on Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, times are changing.

"Although I respect and certainly appreciate the need for family time on holidays, I think that we've got to understand that society has changed and people who don't celebrate those holidays, because you may have two working families that are involved in other industries need access to certain food stuff and basic needs," Cushing says.

Even the Christian Civic League of Maine, which has historically worked to protect Sunday as a day of rest, is taking no position on Johnson's bill. Carroll Conley is the league's executive director.

"The principal for us recognizing that commerce is being done on Sundays now - you know, whether or not the state has the right to really interfere with business people about when they're going to be open and so on - as long as people have the right to not participate, I think that's the major platform we're coming from," Conley says.

Committee members say they agree that if larger stores are allowed to open on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, employees should not be forced to work on those days.



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