Car sales on Sundays gain support Opponents warn of higher prices, but House OK likely

'Things have changed'

Legislative leaders predict passage of bid to attract giant dealer

March 20, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

A bill that would allow Sunday car sales in Howard County continues to gain support in the General Assembly and is expected to pass the House of Delegates its final hurdle before going to the governor's desk.

The House Economic Matters Committee held the final public hearing on the bill yesterday in Annapolis, where lobbyists, politicians and others made their last, at times passionate pleas for and against the legislation.

The bill a significant economic development issue for the county and of particular interest to the North Laurel area passed the state Senate earlier this month and is headed for a House vote in about a week.

Legislative leaders yesterday said that its prospects for passage looked strong.

"The bill will probably receive the local courtesy it received in the Senate," said Del. Michael Busch, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee. "This is not the first county to take this step. It will be hard for any committee to deny any jurisdiction Sunday sales when their county council has approved it."

Members of Howard County's local and state delegation unanimously support Sunday car sales because they want to attract CarMax, a used-car "super-store" and subsidiary of Circuit City Stores, to the county. But local car dealers oppose it because they fear Sunday car sales could drive up their costs.

CarMax is changing the used car industry with high-tech showrooms, no-haggle pricing and low-pressure sales tactics. The company is promising to open an outlet, its sixth in the country, on the long-vacant site of the former Freestate race track in North Laurel and bring 300 jobs to Howard County but only if allowed Sunday sales.

"This bill is vital to the continued economic prosperity of Howard County," Councilman C. Vernon Gray told the committee yesterday. The proposed project in Howard has drawn an unusual alliance of backers among county Republicans, Democrats, a developer and the community around the Freestate site. Representatives of these groups sat side-by-side yesterday, urging the committee to pass the bill.

State blue laws ban Sunday car sales in all but Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Although the bill doesn't require car dealerships to be open on Sundays, several dealers in Howard and throughout Maryland oppose Sunday sales because they believe they'll have to open on Sundays to compete. The opponents have been building a strong lobby against the bill since it was proposed.

"If you force [dealers] to be open on Sunday, they are going to sell the same 50 or 75 cars, only they're going to do it over seven days instead of six," Ira Cooke, a lobbyist representing car dealers opposed to Sunday sales, told the committee yesterday. "They will lose money.

Mr. Cooke accused CarMax of destroying small car dealerships with its big advertising campaigns and customer base.

But many local and state officials say blue laws, which trace back to the Colonial era, represent unnecessary restraint of trade.

"I'm sure you're not an ostrich with your head in the sand," Howard Del. Shane Pendergrass, who represents the Freestate area, said to Mr. Cooke during the hearing. "Things have changed."

Others criticized Mr. Cooke's argument that car dealers would lose money if they open on Sundays, saying the dealers will have the choice whether to open.

They pointed to Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where even though Sunday sales are allowed many dealers still are closed.

"Why are car dealerships open on Sunday if there's no demand for car dealerships to be open?" asked Del. Mathew Mossburg, a member of the Economic Matters Committee. "If I own a car dealership, I'm going to open because I know customers are going to be coming."

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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