State records show no increase in the number of alcohol-involved car crashes since the state began allowing stores to sell alcohol on Sundays in Georgia. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

With new alcohol bill set to become Ga. law, old prophecies prove iffy

When Georgia lawmakers and lobbyists began making their arguments for expanding alcohol sales in the late 2000s, critics said Sundays are for praising God and that the number of drunken driving deaths and crashes would skyrocket.

Sunday sales in stores finally won passage in 2011, but those same critics have used similar arguments in recent years to fight legislation to let restaurants sell alcohol earlier on Sundays.

That legislation, Senate Bill 17, finally passed this month and now sits on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk awaiting his signature.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of state records shows that the rate of alcohol-related crashes has held steady, tax revenue on alcohol sales has increased since 2012 and a majority of Georgia’s lawmakers — who begin each floor session and most committee meetings with a prayer — backed Sunday sales.

“Vehicle,” the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Jaime Johnson, a Norcross resident, is looking forward to the Sunday morning change under SB 17. Johnson said he was frustrated when he took out-of-town guests to brunch on a recent Sunday morning and was told it was too early to serve mimosas.

“I was pretty annoyed,” Johnson said. “We wanted to celebrate some friends being in town and had already ordered food. So we had to wait longer than we ideally wanted to enjoy our brunch.”

While the bill was being debated, lawmakers called on the Bible to back their stance.

“Jesus didn’t turn water into wine on Sunday morning,” state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R-Douglas, declared.

But Mike Griffin, a pastor who lobbies for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said Sunday alcohol sales are not only a moral issue, but one of public safety.

“Anytime you increase availability, (it) equals increased sales,” he said. “Anytime you increase sales, it increases consumption. Anytime you increase consumption, it equals an increase in whatever the problems are associated with alcohol. I mean, I don’t have to have any statistics for that, all though I do have it, it’s just common sense.”

Griffin said he first began fighting against the expansion of Sunday alcohol sales in stores in 2007. He said he’s frustrated that only a few years after stores got the OK for Sunday sales, lawmakers were back asking for another expansion.

“There was an unwritten agreement that we’re going to respect the faith community by just selling it after 12:30 (p.m.),” he said. “It seems like when it comes to the alcohol industry it’s never enough. They always have to keep changing it or expanding it.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue and the Senate killed several attempts during the late 2000s to pass laws allowing Sunday sales in stores. At the time they all pointed to a New Mexico study that said there was a 29 percent increase in Sunday crashes when it changed its liquor laws.

Politifact report in 2011 noted that New Mexico also raised its speed limit on some roads to 75 mph around the same time the Sunday sales laws were changed.

Legislation allowing Sunday retail alcohol sales passed during Deal’s first year in office. Voters in more than 100 cities and counties across Georgia cast their ballots that November to allow alcohol sales on Sunday.

While the number of crashes involving alcohol on Sundays has increased by a few hundred, it mirrors the growth of impaired crashes that have happened on other days.

In 2011, there were 13,006 crashes involving impaired drivers on Georgia’s roads, with 2,193 — or 19 percent — happening on Sundays. In 2016, the most recent data provided by the Georgia Department of Transportation, there were 15,351 impaired crashes, with 17 percent — or 2,704 — occurring on Sundays.

Numbers include all incidents that occur on Sunday, meaning an alcohol-involved crash that happened shortly after midnight when the driver had been drinking on a Saturday night would be in that tally.

The increase in crashes statewide comes as Georgia’s population has swelled by nearly 1 million residents, putting many more cars on the roads.

Taxes collected by the state jumped by $14 million in the first year that alcohol was allowed to be sold on Sundays and has steadily increased. That figure could be misleading, though, since the previous year, fiscal 2011, saw tax revenue from alcohol sales drop for the first time since 2005.

In fiscal 2011, which ended in June 2011, the state collected $159 million.

In fiscal 2012, the first year that included taxes collected from alcohol sold in stores on Sundays, tax revenue jumped to $173 million. In the fiscal year that ended in June, alcohol tax collections rose to $193.4 million.

State Rep. Megan Hanson, R-Brookhaven, said allowing sales to begin at restaurants at 11 a.m. on Sundays would lead to an additional $100 million in revenue for Georgia’s businesses and $11 million more in state taxes.

Jessica Rothacker, who co-owns Heirloom Cafe in Athens, agreed that her business should see some extra money with the time change. The cafe offers brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.

She said Heirloom makes about $200 more on Saturdays than Sundays.

“I know it doesn’t sound like much,” she said, “but over a year, that’s about $10,000.”

Lawmakers have said the change was needed to appeal to visitors who might be used to having a bloody mary on Sunday mornings in their hometowns.

While Rothacker said she’s never had customers leave because they couldn’t get a mimosa on Sunday morning, they’re often disappointed.

“Sometimes they’re jokingly upset,” she said, “but sometimes they’re really upset.”

Stores were split on adding Sunday sales in 2011 — and this year.

Lawmakers proposed allowing stores to sell alcohol before the current 12:30 p.m. time on Sundays, but they changed the legislation to help it pass after a key senator objected.

Kathy Kuzava, the president of the Georgia Food Industry Association, the grocery store lobby, said stores have seen more shoppers on Sundays in recent years. She pushed lawmakers to include retail in the expansion of alcohol sales, saying she wanted parity with restaurants.

“Brick-and-mortar retail is under attack,” she said, referencing online businesses that cut out grocery stores. “Everyone is trying to do something so that they can compete.”

But Stony McGill, a lobbyist with the Georgia Alcohol Dealers Association, which represents liquor stores, said he’s glad the change won’t affect his clients.

“We don’t see there being the revenue to justify expanding our hours,” he said. “We would have to look at having two shifts on Sunday versus one shift. That makes it more expensive on small independent retailers.”

He said sales haven’t increased at liquor stores since the law changed in 2011, saying people appear to buy the same amount of alcohol, but across seven days instead of six.

“I don’t know anyone that will tell me they’re drinking 15 percent more than they were drinking before they could buy it on Sunday,” McGill said.

Still, many restaurant owners are pleased with the change in their hours to sell mimosas. So is Johnson, the Norcross resident, who said he’s looking forward to having a boozy Sunday morning brunch the next time he has friends in town.

“We are grown-ups,” Johnson said. “We should be able to decide if we want to a have a drink late morning or not. I don’t think it’s right for the government to make that decision for me.”

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