House Bill 69
Summary: Allows local governments to hold a referendum on the sale of beer, wine and liquor on Sunday from 12:30 p.m to midnight.
Status: House Regulated Industries Committee approved Wednesday.
Senate Bill 10
Summary: Allows local governments to hold a referendum on the sale of beer and wine on Sunday from 12:30 to 11:30 p.m.
Status: State and Local Governmental Operations Committee approved legislation Feb. 2. The full Senate has delayed action on the bill.
For years, Sunday alcohol sales have been an emotional, hot-button issue in Georgia, pitting religious leaders against business owners.
But now that lawmakers are considering lifting the statewide ban, few state or local officials seem willing to declare outright support or stand in opposition.
As a result, bills in both the state Senate and House of Representatives have made their way through committees with record speed.
The bills, similar in nature, would give city and county governments the option of putting a referendum on the ballot to let voters decide if they want to purchase alcohol on Sundays at retail stores.
Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, is chairman of the Local Government Committee, which recently reviewed the bill. He said while the bill has faced little controversy thus far, it remains a long way from becoming law.
"If there is a battle, it'll be fought in the counties and cities, and that's where it should be fought," Miller said. "It's a local issue for local governments to offer a local referendum for a local decision."
Miller said he was surprised by the lack of debate at the committee hearing.
"We did not have one single person speak against this bill. No one opposed it, not one single person," Miller said.
Until recently, the Georgia Christian Coalition had all but abandoned its longtime fight over Sunday sales at the state level.
"As of (Feb. 4) it looked like it was a sure defeat because of the way it came out of committee," said Jerry Luquire, president of the Georgia Christian Coalition.
Though his organization has been encouraged by a recent outpouring of opposition.
"Some things apparently happened ... and senators got a lot of opposition from local elected officials," Luquire said. "I think it caused local population groups like churches to contact their local officials and say ‘we don't want this. We don't even want the option.'"
Luquire said his group would love to see the bill defeated at the Senate level and is expanding its grass-roots opposition efforts to the local government level. Supporters of the Christian Coalition have started an e-mail campaign urging people to contact their local officials.
"The council must agree to put it on the ballot. They don't have to agree," Luquire said.
Gainesville Mayor Ruth Bruner said she does not appreciate how the state proposals may put the burden on local governments to resolve the Sunday sales debate.
"I think what the legislature tends to do is try to push as much onto the local governments to hold, they do unfunded mandates, unfunded opportunities, saying you can do it if you want to," Bruner said.
"Then we look like the bad guys to people if people don't think it's a good thing.
"There's several situations over the last few years, even the transportation tax, where instead of doing something themselves they say ‘local governments, you need to do it and impose another sales tax.'"
Bruner said the city council has not yet discussed the legislation, but would likely put Sunday sales up for a vote if it passes.
"If the legislation passes, we probably would be interested in just putting it on a referendum to see what people want to do," Bruner said.
Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver said he is not interested in a referendum.
"I'm sure there will be pressure on the county," Oliver said. "At this time, I'm not interested in the vote."
Gov. Nathan Deal has said he would not stand in the way of a bill that allowed communities the option of voting on Sunday sales.
Deal's predecessor, Sonny Perdue, vowed to veto any Sunday sales bill that made it to his desk.
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the shift in attitude from the governor's office likely had a lot to do with the relative ease with which the bills are making their way through the legislative process.
"That took a lot of the wind out of the sails of the legislative sponsors because they knew that even if they managed to get it through the chambers, the governor was going to derail it, " Bullock said.
The issue also has fiscal elements.
"It probably helps that the economy is not good. One of the justifications is that if you had this it would create some additional local revenues," Bullock said.
Alcohol has a long history as a volatile issue in Georgia, stemming from prohibition.
"If you go back 50, 60 years ago, there were very few counties in Georgia where you could buy anything legally," Bullock said. "So one could paint this as yet another step in the long move of over 80 years or so since the repeal of prohibition."
If Sunday sales legislation becomes law, it is likely that many rural communities will vote to continue to ban the sale of alcohol on Sundays.
"With the repeal of that, it becomes kind of a state issue. Some states moved much more quickly to allow alcohol sales than others. The Bible Belt was generally somewhat slower," Bullock said.
Miller said he believes the local option is a good way to address the issue in light of differently communities around the state feel about the issue.
"Really the bill is a local matter," Miller said.
"If there is a battle it'll be fought in the counties and the cities and that's where it should be fought."
Both bills would allow alcohol sales to begin at 12:30, traditionally considered after church time.
The Senate bill proposes ending sales at 11:30 p.m. Sundays, while the House version recommends midnight.
Areas that currently permit the sale of wine and malt beverages would be able to offer a vote on selling the same products on Sunday. Those that also allow the sale of liquor could include that on the referendum as well.