Set 'em up Joe for another round on Sunday alcohol sales|
K. Patrick Jensen
Georgia Online News Service
Like a Sunday morning gotta-get-ready-for-church hangover, the issue of selling alcohol on Sundays is reviving itself for another round of debate in the Georgia Legislature and Statehouse.
Booze vs. pews has been a perennial issue as the Legislature has struggled with one of the last of the blue laws that at one time prohibited almost all commerce on Sundays in Georgia and many other states. The issue has simmered for years as people – especially out-of-state immigrants or those living on the border close to other states – questioned why citizens shouldn't be able to pick up a six-pack to watch the game on Sunday.
Last year's battle seemed particularly strident. House advocates for Sunday sales took hostage a proposal to sell suds at the Gwinnett County Braves minor league stadium, which opens this April, in a push for overall Sunday sales. The Gwinnett measure would have given counties the same right as cities to allow alcohol sales at sporting events. That proposal became mixed in with a bill allowing all types of Sunday sales if approved by voters, much to the chagrin of Gwinnett legislators who cried foul. The combined legislation failed to pass.
Gwinnett would be able to sell alcohol under a measure approved by both houses and signed by the governor, House Bill 1280. That measure allows alcohol sales at a Regional Economic Assistance Project, but the county would prefer a less bureaucratically cumbersome method.
Two of the current bills in the Senate and House would give local governments the option to ask voters whether they want Sunday sales of alcohol. Merchants could sell from noon to midnight in Senate Bill 16 or 12:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. in House Bill 138. A third bill, House Bill 104, would simply extend to counties the authority – as cities have now – to allow Sunday alcohol sales at sports stadiums, coliseums or auditoriums having seating in excess of 2500 between 12:30 p.m. to midnight. Morning worship times would remain sacred.
An indication of how heated the debate over Sunday booze might become popped up Thursday when State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, a gubernatorial candidate, announced his opposition to Senate Bill 16.
"Republicans are supposed to be the party of family values. Where is the value in selling alcohol on the Lord's Day?" Oxendine said.
Oxendine said he would join Gov. Sonny Perdue, the Georgia Christian Alliance, the Christian Coalition of Georgia, the Georgia Baptist Convention, and the Georgia Council on Moral and Civic Concerns opposing Sunday sales.
He also indirectly criticized Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who has said he won't stop SB 16 from reaching the Senate floor for a vote.
"I share the disappointment of many in the faith movement in Georgia that certain elected officials have moved away from the position they promised to support during their campaigns once they were in office," Oxendine said.
Despite his general opposition to Sunday sales, Oxendine supports HB 104 by Rep. Clay Cox (R-Lilburn), which basically amends the state law passed four decades ago allowing the city of Atlanta to have beer at Braves games and other events to now include counties.
Oxendine said: "I strongly support the ability to sell alcoholic beverages at the Gwinnett Braves stadium. As for the details of HB 104, it has been suggested by some that there might exist the possibility for unintended consequences. It is my hope that the Legislature will, in its wisdom, seek to avoid any unintended consequences that are not the intent of the authors," Oxendine said.
Georgia is one of only three states that prohibit stores from selling any kind of alcohol on Sundays. The other two are Connecticut and Indiana.
While Georgia doesn't allow citizens to go to a convenience store or grocer to buy alcohol on Sundays, citizens can drink at restaurants and sporting events – and then drive home.
Last year's legislative and public debate was vigorous. Among the tactics by Sunday alcohol supporters was a website – votesundaysales.com – by the Georgia Food Industry Association and the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores that offered citizens a chance to read about the issue and contact legislators.
The website started to rev up for this year's fight with new content supporting Sunday sales, said Jim Tudor, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores. Among other things it points out that Sunday is the biggest shopping day for many retailers and polling has regularly shown overwhelming public support for Sunday alcohol sales.
A big hurdle last year to Sunday sales was Gov. Sonny Perdue who went so far as to write a scathing op-ed piece on the issue. Proponents point to him as being the main reason Sunday alcohol sales fizzled. Perdue had some odd allies opposing Sunday sales, including some in the liquor industry who questioned the financial payoff of the additional day of sales. But that was before the economy went South.
In the impassioned op-ed piece, the governor pointed to New Mexico, which had a rise in alcohol-related crashes and deaths after Sunday sales. Perdue wrote: "The Republican principle of individual freedom is just as important to me as it is to my colleagues in the legislature, but so is the principle of protecting innocent Georgians. If you have ever comforted the parents or grandparents of a young person lost in a DUI crash, then you know that the cost of this proposal is too great and the damage it stands to inflict is too heavy a burden for innocent families to bear."
That was last year.
One of the legislators leading the charge then and continuing the fight now is Sen. Seth Harp (R-Midland). Harp, a Methodist and regular churchgoer, offers a proverb-like story as his reason for sponsoring SB 16.
After church one Sunday, he recounts, he stood in the line at a Publix where the visiting family of a soldier who'd just completed basic training was told they couldn't buy beer for an impromptu engagement party for the private and his bride-to-be. Harp knew by Monday or Tuesday, the young man would be off to his assignment and the celebratory moment lost.
"Here is some family whose son is going to make a huge sacrifice and serve the county that wants to have a small celebration and our archaic laws don't allow it," the senator recalls, explaining why he took on the cause of Sunday alcohol sales. "I've been pushing that stone up the hill ever since."
While the battle against Sunday booze is often portrayed as a Bible-belt issue, Harp says he's had only two people in his district disagree with his stance on religious grounds. "The people in my church have said 'keep it up'," he said. He points out Sunday sales in the bill is a totally optional, based on a local vote. Dry areas could choose to remain dry.
The major problem facing the bill? "I think the governor is the problem."
Harp points to the state's $2 billion-ish budget shortfall and believes the Sunday sales of alcohol could help fill part of the financial hole, although estimates of how much Sunday alcohol could raise is uncertain because no one knows which locales would vote for it. He points to growing support, including what he described as a very similar proposal in HB 138 sponsored by Rep. Roger Williams (R-Dalton).
Williams agrees the Sunday sales "is an issue the majority of the citizens of George would like to vote on."
The haze of past legislative battles is apparent in his measure, HB 138. First, the supposedly separate Gwinnett stadium proposal remained in the new bill as of Wednesday. Williams, who at first said he thought it had been removed, was very thankful for the tip that part remained, and promised to take it out. Besides, he said, the stadium issue is addressed in HB 104 by Cox.
Indeed the Cox bill does seem a cleaner solution for having beer at Gwinnett Braves Sunday baseball games than making the stadium a Regional Economic Assistance Project – a program which is aimed at helping local and state governments and the private sector cooperate on large-scale tourism-related projects with multiple uses that will create jobs and boost the tax base.
David O'Kelley, Gwinnett County manager of license and revenue, explains the county has started the somewhat cumbersome process of becoming a REAP, but it prefers HB 104. "It makes it a lot more clean for us."
Even if somehow REAP didn't happen and HB 104 got tied up in the Legislature, the Gwinnett stadium would probably still be able to sell beer at games in April. That's because its food and beer vendor expects more than half of sales to be in food, which is the criteria restaurants meet for Sunday alcohol sales.
O'Kelley said that's why beer could be sold on Sunday at the Gwinnett Arena for hockey and arena football.
Cox says he's for beer and baseball at the Gwinnett stadium, but against Sunday sales in general. He said he'd kill HB 104 himself if it's tied to general Sunday sales. "I think we've seen over the last 30 or 40 years our conservative, traditional values vanish in our country. Our culture has taken many hits. Any reminder we have of our Judeo-Christian tradition is a positive thing," he said.
Asked what would halt proponents of Sunday sales of alcohol from attaching his bill to theirs, Cox replied, "Nothing."
So look for the Legislature again to serve up debate on Sunday sales. After that, who knows?
It looks like Sunday baseball fans in Gwinnett County will have beer with their hot dogs in April one way or the other as do Braves fans at Rome and Atlanta stadiums.
The governor is likely to stay true to his principles rather than swallow an all-out Sunday sales proposal in the hopes of more revenue for the state from this "sin tax." It's interesting to note he and many other Sunday booze opponents have not turned down gambling cash from the Lottery, which recently reported an uptick in revenues during the recession.
Perdue and like-minded legislators are right that alcohol can be a destroyer of lives – but nearly every other state has chosen to live with that sad fact every day, including Sunday. Perhaps his successor will have to deal with the issue if he and legislators block the measure again.
At any rate, whether next year or in coming years Georgia citizens someday will vote on a local basis whether they should be allowed to buy some spirits on Sunday at places other than ballparks and restaurants. And what could be more democratic – or Republican – in principle?
K. Patrick Jensen is a former editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes about faith and suburban issues. [full bio]