During a powerful storm that flooded basements, uprooted trees and left tens of thousands of families without power through a late winter weekend, residents of one New Jersey county had to wait till Monday morning to buy sump pumps, generators and other cleanup tools at local stores.
That's because Bergen County — one of the country's richest retail areas with its five shopping malls and 900,000 residents — still enforces "blue laws" that prohibit Sunday shopping, except for essentials like food and gasoline. You can't buy clothes or electronics, but you can pick up a case of beer or a dozen roses, or grab lunch at a diner.
The Sunday shopping ban in New Jersey's largest county — among the nation's last remaining blue laws — may be lifted to satisfy the state's hunger for more sales tax revenue. The budget proposed last week by new Republican Gov. Chris Christie assumes $65 million in new sales tax revenue by jettisoning the law starting July 1.
While the governor may see the Bergen County's blue law as antiquated, some residents view it as quaint and don't want to lose it.
"Sundays in this town are wonderful," said Carl Shaw, a 56-year-old Bergen County native who owns Norton Paints in Paramus, which is closed on Sundays by law. "To the people who say 'I need it now,' I say 'Plan ahead or come Saturday or Monday.'"
The few remaining blue laws are mostly in the South and Midwest and mostly limit liquor or car sales on Sundays, said Jacqueline Byers, research director at the National Association of Counties.
Some officials believe dropping Bergen County's blue law would allow it to pick up Sunday customers from the nation's largest metropolitan area; Manhattan is just a 20-minute cab ride away.
Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney said there's more at stake than money. He told a Senate committee conducting a public hearing on the budget this week that lifting the ban would strain local police and fire departments and adversely affect the affluent suburban county's quality of life.
"The blue laws have been in effect in Bergen County since the 1950s to give our citizens ... one day of rest from the traffic jams, noise pollution and accidents that are a nightmare on Saturdays and long weekends," McNerney told the panel.
Bergen's law has been around longer than its five malls. Longer even than the traffic backup clogging Route 17 at rush-hour, which is what proponents say makes the ban really sacred — the promise that they can get where they're going on Sundays, even if it's not to a mall.
John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, said lifting the ban makes economic sense.
He said adding a day of shopping in Bergen County would generate 3,200 jobs and more than $1.1 billion in net new retail sales a year. A portion of those sales would be from people who would have shopped online when retailers in their home county are closed.
Shaw, the paint store owner, disagrees. He believes his sales revenue would be roughly the same whether he's open for business six days a week or seven.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the governor's proposal was driven by economic necessity. He said the governor would reconsider if opponents come up with a credible alternative that raises $65 million.
"We still would like (Sunday shopping)," Drewniak said, but "we're respectful of local opposition."
When New Jersey lifted a statewide prohibition on Sunday shopping decades ago, most counties quickly opted out. The last county to do so was Hudson, also in densely populated North Jersey, in the mid-80s.
Bergen voters have held tight to their no-shopping tradition, defeating prior attempts to lift the ban. The most recent referendum, in 1993, was defeated by about 80,000 votes. A 1980 attempt to overturn the blue laws lost by nearly 35,000 votes.
"Blue laws hits home with people — they're outraged," said Sarlo, a Democrat who represents Bergen County.
Byers said most blue laws originated as state rules that individual counties or cities were later allowed to repeal, resulting in a hodgepodge of local regulations. For example, the borough of Paramus has a more restrictive blue law than the other 69 towns in Bergen County, allowing only food, gas and goods for charities to be sold on Sundays.
The name is believed to have derived either from 18th century usage of the word "blue" to disparage those with puritanical beliefs or from an early set of rules in New Haven, Conn., that were printed on blue paper.
Repealing the Bergen County law could be accomplished through legislation or voter referendum. Sarlo said the Democratic-controlled Legislature is unlikely to support a bill repealing the law.
Christie further angered opponents with a declaration this week that a giant retail and entertainment complex being built in the Meadowlands in Bergen County would not be subject to the ban.
"We're all quite perplexed on how he intends to do this," Sarlo said. "He's taking it away from the will of the people.
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