Bar hours bill bumps budget debate

Governor Paul LePage has proposed an act to “better serve the seasonal tourist market” this summer and fall through a pilot program “to extend the authorized hours during which liquor may be served.” What about better serving our local communities?

All bills, even governor’s bills, must have a legislative sponsor. LD 1436 is sponsored by Representative Kinney of Limington. Limington itself does not appear to be a hotbed of tourism. An Internet search shows just two restaurants in town.

One is the B’s Nest Diner. “It serves diner food,” says the Internet. The other is, or was, Jake’s, reported to have been burned down by its owner in 2014. A website review says it “was only so-so anyways,” so no skin off Limington’s nose if other towns serve liquor into the wee hours.

Bar Harbor would be a different story, as would the other tourist towns of Hancock County, large and small. Here in the heart of Vacationland, there is already sufficient friction between those who have come to frolic and those who must get up in the morning and go be a nurse or a librarian or a real estate agent or a bank teller.

For the most part, the locals are sanguine about the disturbances of summer. Sidewalks are crowded and sticky with ice cream. Visitors stand transfixed in the middle of streets, cars parked in “no parking” spots obstruct travel, but hey! This is when we make whatever money we make, and we are prepared to be tolerant, mostly. Keeping the booze flowing later means that alcohol-related disturbances will continue until later in the night.

One of the main points of friction in a heavily touristed town is the time of night when employees are released back into the wild, looking for some fun of their own and time to decompress. When those employees live mixed in with the rest of us, and it’s two o’clock in the morning, the phones at the police department start to ring.

Would one more hour of liquor sales be a sufficient economic incentive to make it worth the additional headaches? Bar and restaurant owners are pondering the impact on payroll, longer hours for employees and later nights for themselves, while municipal officials consider the impact on public safety personnel, who already see a surge of activity at closing time, especially in larger cities.

The wherefores in the governor’s bill inform us that Massachusetts has a 2 a.m. last call, while New York’s is 4 a.m. An estimated 40 percent of overnight visitors to Maine in 2014 came from those two states, so Maine “loses opportunities to cater to out-of-state customers accustomed to longer hours of on-premises liquor service.” Since when are Massachusetts and New York our role models?

This is not just any old competitive disadvantage. According to the bill, “these facts create an emergency within the meaning of the Constitution of Maine and require the … legislation as immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety.”

Oh, please! An extra hour of time to imbibe is a Constitutional emergency? Increased time at the bar promotes “public peace, health and safety?” This is the boilerplate language with which any emergency legislation must be prefaced. The bill must be designated an emergency, or it will not take effect until 90 days after adjournment. By then, the leaves will be turning. The Legislature has long stretched the definition of “emergency” to the breaking point, but this might be the granddaddy of stretches.

There is one point on which the hospitality industry agrees. Why toss a bill like this into the hopper at this late date in the session? It should have been put in much earlier in the year, or it can wait until next year. The Legislature is meant to adjourn on June 17, so this bill will not get the usual two weeks’ notice of public hearing. It hit the newspapers last weekend and may have its hearing this week. How is that fair?

The bill pre-empts the authority of municipalities to choose an earlier closing time if they wish. The establishment may choose not to extend serving time, but the bill would allow the later closing anywhere, “notwithstanding any local option decisions to the contrary.”

The whole event is intended to be a pilot program and will be repealed automatically Oct. 12 (after Columbus Day weekend) this fall. The director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations will then be required to submit a report on the program to the Joint Standing Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs.

We do not yet have a biennial budget. Divided reports (bills which must still be debated) are stacked up in the legislative chambers like cross-country flights in a Boston snowstorm. Extending this summer’s opportunity to purchase a drink for one more hour is so far off the radar screen of what our Legislature should be worrying about right now that it isn’t even funny.

No way is this bill an emergency. Carry it over, legislators, or leave it to die on the table, the merciful way to put an untimely bill to sleep.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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