Alcohol bills in House have a lower profile this year

Proposed laws to ease the selling, drinking or making of alcoholic beverages are moving quietly through the Legislature, avoiding the furor created in last year's vote to allow Sunday retail sales of alcohol.

Bills currently under consideration in the state House would:

-- Allow visitors to Georgia's growing number of distillers to sip a half-ounce sample

-- Let brew pubs double their beer-making capacity.

-- Permit wine tastings in liquor stores.

-- Give Georgia residents with a single conviction of driving while under the influence of alcohol a chance to wipe their records clean.

-- Allow alcohol sellers to increase their dealer licenses fivefold.

-- Make it easier for local governments to call for liquor referendums.

The public response has been underwhelming.

"I don't think [opposition] is as bad as it once was," said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, a member of the House Regulated Industries Committee, where many of the bills get studied.

The passage of the Sunday sales law and quick adoption by dozens of local governments shows how Georgia has changed, though it still remains a Bible Belt state, Powell said.

Though some believe last year's bruising fight over Sunday sales sapped the energy of those opposed to alcohol sales, Ray Newman is keeping an eye on each of the bills in his position as legislative liaison for the Georgia Baptist Convention.

"It is not my responsibility to drum up opposition, because that opposition is already there," he said. "There is never a time when I am out speaking in churches that there is not always a question related to alcohol."

But committee meetings where the bills are discussed have been sedate affairs compared with last year. Then, Republican senators disagreed so strongly about bringing the Sunday sales bill to a vote that some legislative sessions were slowed while they took time to argue among themselves. Dozens of speakers, for and against the measure, attended committee meetings.

This year, there has been no discussion of alcohol-related bills in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, said Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, the chairman.

Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville, already has moved House Bill 514, which would allow distillery tastings, to the House Rules Committee, the last stop before it could be called to the floor for debate. A bill must pass one legislative chamber, then be considered and passed in the other chamber before it has a chance of the governor signing it into law.

Kidd said the single taste would not cause danger and could help stimulate tourism jobs they way wine tastings at Georgia's wineries have.

Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton, the chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee, said it is ready to consider the increase in brew-pub capacity.

"There are a number of bills cropping up," he said.

But he is doubtful about how many will make it to debate because of a slowed pacing of bills by House leadership. If they get to the floor for a vote, the bills could have an easier time this year.

"I don't see much opposition," Williams said. "I think people are more accepting of this kind of thing than in the past."