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Officials lobby for vote on liquor sales
State law could keep package sales out of unincorporated Hall
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Official code of Georgia 3-4-41.

Petition for referendum; notice of call for referendum

a) Upon a written petition containing the signatures of at least 35 percent of the registered and qualified voters of any municipality or county being filed with the election superintendent of the county or municipality, such superintendent, upon validation of the petition, shall be required to call and hold a referendum election for the purpose of submitting to the qualified voters of the municipality or county, as the case may be, the question of whether the manufacture, sale, and distribution of distilled spirits in the political subdivision shall be permitted or prohibited. Such petition shall not be amended, supplemented, or returned after its presentation to the appropriate authority. Validation shall, for the purposes of this Code section, be the procedure in which the election superintendent determines whether each signature on the petition is the name of a registered and qualified voter.

While Hall County voters will get a chance to weigh in on Sunday beer and wine sales at grocery and convenience stores, they won't get a choice yet on whether to allow liquor stores in unincorporated parts of the county.

County officials are lobbying to change a state law they say makes it nearly impossible to let voters choose whether they can buy distilled spirits by the package.

For counties and municipalities that do not already have ordinances allowing for the sale of packaged liquor, they must collect the signatures of at least 35 percent of "registered and qualified voters" before a referendum can be held to change it, according the Official Code of Georgia Annotated 3-4-41.

That means for Hall County, with about 80,000 registered voters, 28,000 signatures are required just to bring voters a referendum.

Hall County already allows sales of beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores and liquor by the drink in restaurants every day but Sunday. Voters were going to have four questions on the March 8 ballot: Sunday alcohol package sales of beer and wine, Sunday alcohol package sales of liquor, liquor-by-the drink on Sundays and allowing packaged sales of liquor.

But now, the questions that would allow liquor stores may not be possible. Commissioner Scott Gibbs said the code is not fair. He's asking Hall County's legislative delegation to consider changing it.

"For us to get 35 percent of the electorate, we would have to hire an outside firm," he said.

Gibbs learned of the code when the county was researching its Sunday sales ballot referendum.

When Gibbs asked about selling liquor throughout the county, County Attorney Bill Blalock pointed to code 3-4-41.

"It's an antiquated statute," Blalock said. "It's been on the book for years."

The code could date back as far as the 1930s, he said.

However, the county's concerns aren't gaining much traction yet with area legislators.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said the first time he heard the concern is when the Hall County Board of Commissioners raised it earlier this month.

Miller said he has heard very little about it since.

"The money line is: There has not been a groundswell of interest in the issue," he said. "If folks have an interest, then we'll look into it."

Otherwise, Miller said the item would "be far down on my legislative agenda."

There are state legislators, however, who are looking to make a change in existing code.

State Rep. Amos Amerson, R-Dahlonega, proposed a bill in the 2011 legislative session to change it.

His bill, if passed, would have lowered the required percentage of signatures from 35 percent to 5 percent.

Amerson said that adjustment would make it more in line with other requirements for petitions.

"Nothing else on the books requires such a huge number with any petition," he said.

In a lot of elections, the representative said, 35 percent don't even turn out to vote.

Amerson said ultimately there were not enough votes in the legislature to support his bill, so he pulled it. He hopes to bring it back bill once there is more interest.

Gibbs said he has constituents that have raised the issue to him. Ultimately, for Gibbs, it's about letting the people of Hall County make their own decision.

He said, "The voters should have the opportunity to vote."

The state legislature convenes its 2012 session on Jan. 9.