House gives final passage to Sunday alcohol sales bill

After five years of heated lobbying that pitted grocery and convenience stores against preachers, the General Assembly gave final approval Tuesday to legislation that could lead to Sunday package sales.

Gov. Nathan Deal has already said he will sign Senate Bill 10, which the House approved Tuesday by a vote of 127-44. The measure had earlier passed the Senate after being stalled there since early 2007.

The legislation would allow city councils and county commissions to call for referendums on Sunday alcohol sales at stores. Voters could see it on ballots as early as November in cities with elections. They will likely have to wait until next year in counties and cities without 2011 elections.

That means some parts of metro Atlanta could have Sunday sales by next year while others won’t.

Georgia is one of only three states with a complete ban on Sunday alcohol sales at stores. Georgians can already buy beer, wine and liquor at restaurants and bars on Sunday in many locations.

"This is about fairness. It's not about religion, it's not about drinking," said House Regulated Industries Chairman Roger Williams, R-Dalton, who handled the bill in the chamber.

During debate on the bill, Rep. Joe Heckstall, D-East Point, said: "It's good to see Georgia is joining the 21st century. ... We are in the Dark Ages if we don't think people are going to drink. I want us to get away from the hypocrisy.I want to set people free to do what they want to do.”

But religious conservatives fought the latest Sunday sales bill hard, arguing that it was an attempt to chip away at the Christian Sabbath.They also said it would lead to an increase in alcohol-related traffic deaths.

Rep. Len Walker, R-Loganville, a minister, suggested lawmakers were allowing voters to decide on Sunday sales because they didn't have the "courage" to make a decision on the issue themselves.

Walker said counties and cities that don't allow Sunday sales would be affected by surrounding ones that do. "The quality of life ... will be greatly affected by the counties that surround you," he said.

Rep. Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, told colleagues he is the son of an alcoholic and that his sister died of cirrhosis of the liver.

"Isn't it hypocritical to pass this legislation that has the effect of promoting and encouraging greater alcoholic availability?" Nix said.

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a religious conservative, was a leading opponent and long promised to veto Sunday sales legislation. When he left office in January, it gave new life to supporters.

The grocery store industry supplied much of the lobbying muscle, hiring some of the best-connected lobbyists at the Capitol. Besides stores and the liquor industry, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and other business groups backed the measure.

Senate Bill 10 sailed through a Senate committee early in the session, but some Senate Republican leaders bottled it up. For weeks it looked dead, with Republican leaders vowing to table the measure because a majority of GOP senators didn't support it. Republican leaders had stalled the bill for four previous sessions, and 2011 looked like it wasn't going to be any different.

But the lobbying effort chipped away at the opposition, and Senate Republicans decided last month to bring it up for a vote. It passed 32-22.

That opened the door for the House to vote on the issue for the first time. House members had long said it would easily pass the chamber if it ever got out of the Senate.

Jerry Luquire, president of the Georgia Christian Coalition, said his group will work to keep the issue off local ballots or defeat Sunday sales referendums at the polls.

"Those who have fought for local control will encounter a negative component by the local voters as we continue to try and keep Sunday safer by not having retail whiskey, beer and wine sales," he said.

Kathy Kuzava of the Georgia Food Industry Association, the grocery store lobby, said, "The voters of Georgia won by passage of local-option Sunday sales. We applaud legislators for listening to their constituents."