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The right to choose booze
Republicans in the state Senate kill chance for Sunday alcohol sales
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Matters of economics, democracy and faith collided beneath the gold dome of the Georgia capitol last week, writing the newest chapter in the ongoing battle over the state’s Blue laws, which prohibit package sales of alcohol on Sundays.

11th District State Senator John Bulloch introduced a bill, known as SB 10, earlier this year. SB 10 would have given municipalities the right to hold referendums on whether to allow retailers to sell alcohol on Sundays.

“How much closer can you get to democracy than letting the people make that decision?” Bulloch asked during a conversation by phone last week.

Ironically, it was the state’s dominant majority of Republicans, who were elected with campaign rhetoric proclaiming the virtues of smaller government, personal liberty and opposition to the “liberal nanny–state,” that have now silenced the bill without so much as a vote.

With the exception of the Sunday retail prohibition, alcohol sales are regulated almost exclusively at the local level, and communities are able to determine whether alcohol is sold and when.

“It’s controlled locally the other six days of the week,” says Jim Tudor, who leads the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, a professional organization that supported the legislation. “The idea that the seventh day shouldn’t be controlled locally runs against the grain of how we control alcohol in our state.”

Although the bill was not a mandate on Sunday sales, seeking instead to give communities the right of self–determination on the issue, SB 10 drew the ire of religious groups, including the Georgia Christian Coalition (GCC), whose campaign of emails and phone calls roused the faithful to take action.

“Sunday is so much like a Saturday, it creates additional disorder,” says Jerry Luquire, the head of the GCC. “It’s all the bad that a few people can do with alcohol increased from Saturday to include Sunday. That’s why we’re opposing it.”

Georgia has a long and curious history when it comes to the prohibition of alcohol. Hard liquor was contraband in the new colony according to the dictums of James Oglethorpe (a rule broken almost as soon as it was decreed), and in the 1930s Georgia adopted total prohibition of alcohol well before the Temperance movement scored a victory at the national level.

Over the past several decades the old laws have been eroded largely by local control, one example being on–premise sales in restaurants and hybrid establishments, allowed in some places but not others around the state.

Sunday retail is the last piece of the puzzle, and has been a sticky issue in the state Legislature for several years.

“I didn’t feel like in the past four years, that this particular piece of legislation got a fair shake from the committee that it was in, so we debated it in a different committee,” Bulloch says. “It passed that committee.”

Until last week, SB 10 had been sailing smoothly through the legislative process. The bill had passed committee hearings, and was ready to be sent to the Rules Committee, who would set a date for a vote.

Its progress was derailed suddenly last Thursday following a caucus meeting of Senate Republicans, who decided the bill didn’t have the necessary support, essentially killing it before it could reach the floor.

The procedure was unprecedented in recent memory, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle told the Atlanta Journal Constitution last week.

The legislation could have provided much needed revenue for the state, particularly if referendums had been passed by border communities like Savannah and Augusta, where Sunday alcohol purchases drift across the Savannah River into South Carolina.

“Every Sunday they bleed sales into these other states because it’s a convenience issue,” says Ben Jenkins, Vice President of State Government Communications with the Distilled Spirits Council (DSC), a national trade association.

“Since 2002, states that have repealed their Sunday sales bans have seen on average a 5–7% tax revenue increase, which obviously is terrific revenue alternative to raising taxes in a difficult economy.”

According to data provided by the DSC based on estimates from other states who’ve passed local option Sunday sales, the change could have meant about four million dollars in state revenue from liquor alone, and even more with beer and wine included.

Luquire dismisses concerns about potential state revenues, arguing that if people are concerned about taxes they should tax lottery tickets: “Everyone is spending a dollar on a 10 million to one chance, what’s another seven cents?”

While the GCC won’t try to end retail sales on other days of week, they are committed to maintaining status quo.
“Keep it in the bottle,” Luquire says. “Things are fine now. People can live without it, but a lot people can’t live with it.”

Supporters of Sunday sales find the opposite to be true.

“The government shouldn’t be in the business of mandating what day is the Sabbath,” says Jenkins. “Religious conservatives may choose not to drink or buy alcohol on Sunday. There are other people out there that would like to.”

There is a separate bill in state’s House of Representatives that would allow a local option referendum. However, if it is unable to pass the Senate, neither bill could reach the Governor’s desk.