ATLANTA — A bill that would give local governments the power to call for a vote on packaged liquor sales has stalled in a state House subcommittee.
The bill, defended Thursday by members of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, has been mothballed until it is remodeled by its author, Lumpkin County Republican Rep. Amos Amerson, and members of the alcohol subcommittee of the House Committee on Regulated Industries.
Amerson's proposal seeks to create a second avenue to a referendum on packaged liquor sales in Georgia. State law allows residents to vote on the issue after 35 percent of the registered voters in the jurisdiction sign a petition calling for a referendum.
For locales unable to achieve that, Amerson's bill allows county commissions or city councils to put the question on the ballot.
"That's home rule taken to the ‘nth' degree and allowing the voters of the county to participate," said Amerson.
The bill got its first airing Thursday in the subcommittee.
Defending it were a number of local elected officials from Hall County, residents of Lumpkin County and a former mayor of Snellville.
Hall Commissioner Scott Gibbs told subcommittee members that to get the required signatures for a referendum, the county would have to hire a professional firm.
"I'm not even sure we could do that," Gibbs said.
Gibbs and Chairman Tom Oliver told the subcommittee members that Amerson's proposal puts counties on a level playing field with their municipalities, which have a smaller number of registered voters and therefore can easier meet the 35 percent requirement.
The Georgia Alcohol Dealers Association had its own artillery, which included liquor store owners from Hall County, to fire at Amerson's proposal.
Sammy Brown, owner of Sammy's Package Store in Gainesville, was one of the first. To Brown, "wetting" unincorporated areas means diluting his customer base.
"Look at it like a pie. There's only so many pieces in the pie," said Brown. "If we create 10 or 15 more liquor stores in Hall County, there's not going to be that many more drinkers, because there's only so many. So it's not going to create more business."
Flowery Branch liquor store owner Brett Barwick told committee members Thursday that he invested in his business based on the knowledge that the unincorporated areas south of him were dry.
"That's my 401(k), folks, so when you open up that territory, my store's going to be worth half as much money and my retirement's going to be gone," Barwick said.
He said the Hall commission's desire to change the law was based on its desire to share the tax revenues city governments earn from alcohol sales.
He said it wouldn't add tax revenues, only rob them from the cities.
Stony McGill, one of the Georgia Alcohol Dealers Association's chief lobbyists, said the current petition requirement "opens the door for community debate."
McGill said it isn't fair to make it easier for the next generation of liquor store owners if the current generation had to work harder to get theirs.
"If an area goes wet, more power to that area as long as, by our standards, they've gone through what everyone else has gone through," he said. "It's an issue of fairness and nothing else."
Brown, too, told committee members how difficult it was for him to open his store, because he followed the rules, he said.
"All of a sudden a few people want to come in and change the rules, it's not right," Brown said. "... It's the fact that those people who are interested in doing it don't want to do the work like we had to do."
The subcommittee chairman, Hartwell Republican Alan Powell, wasn't ready for a vote on the issue Thursday.
Other committee members voted to table the bill for "further work," and Powell ordered the subcommittee to continue to work on the bill.
"I think there's issues on both sides that need to be looked at. One is the issue of fairness," Powell said.