Georgia Debates Sunday Liquor Sales

As Georgia deals with a state budget deficit of more than $2 billion, legislators are revisiting a measure that would permit retail stores to sell beer and wine on Sundays. The excise tax from these sales could help raise revenue, because liquor sales remain strong even in the sagging economy. Opponents have defeated similar measures.

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States are grappling with budget crises as companies are closing and laying off workers, all of which reduces tax revenues. State lawmakers are searching for new ways to raise money, and in Georgia, lawmakers are considering a law that would let retail stores sell beer and wine on Sundays. That's never been allowed in this Bible Belt state, but a budget deficit of more than $2 billion has created a new impetus for such a law. NPR's Kathy Lohr has more.

KATHY LOHR: The bill lawmakers are considering would give local communities a chance to vote on whether to allow beer and wine sales on Sundays. If a county approves it, grocery stores wouldn't have to rope off aisles containing banned merchandise. And liquor stores could open after noon.

(Soundbite of shopping carts)

LOHR: At Hinton's, an upscale wine store in the Atlanta suburbs, Tom Ware(ph)is perusing hundreds of wines for sale. Ware moved here from Milwaukee, and he misses stores being open.

Mr. TOM WARE: Last week Sunday, we're trying to have brunch, and I would like to have the Mimosas. I didn't have a bottle of champagne. So I could have had Mimosas with it. So, yes, I think that would be advantageous.

LOHR: But Ray Lavel(ph), whose shopping cart is filled with several types of wine, disagrees.

Mr. RAY LAVEL: I believe most people who need a beverage, an alcoholic beverage so badly they have to buy it on Sunday, there's lacking in ability to plan.

LOHR: To add to the confusion, under current Georgia law, many bars and restaurants already do sell alcohol on Sundays, but it's not available at retail stores.

State Senator CHIP ROGERS (Republican, Georgia; Majority Leader): It's a bad law as it stands right now. I mean, either we ban all alcoholic beverages from being sold on Sunday, or you allow local communities to determine what's best for them.

LOHR: Georgia Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers supports the bill to allow voters to choose.

State Sen. ROGERS: Adults ought to make the decision for themselves. There should not be some sort of statewide prohibition or statewide mandate that you do it. Every community is distinctly different, and the voters in that area ought to be allowed to make the decision.

LOHR: Georgia is one of three states that ban all beer, wine and liquor sales at stores on Sunday. A dozen other states have restrictions on selling alcohol during traditional church hours.

Ms. SADIE FIELDS (Georgia Christian Alliance): You can buy alcohol or wine or beer in Georgia six days a week. So, you know, why this extra day?

LOHR: Sadie Fields is with the Georgia Christian Alliance. She says studies demonstrate increased access to alcohol causes problems. A New Mexico study shows alcohol-related car accidents and deaths were up after the sale of alcohol on Sunday was allowed in that state. And a recent MIT study shows drinking and drug use increased among religious individuals in states where blue laws have been repealed.

Ms. FIELDS: Government has a role in trying to ensure the general welfare of the people. And if it's something that is a contributing factor not in the best interest of the people, of the culture, then I think it's government's responsibility to say no.

LOHR: But critics say if you follow that logic, lawmakers could ban just about anything. Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, a teetotaler, has repeatedly opposed bills that would let people vote on Sunday sales.

Governor SONNY PERDUE (Republican, Georgia): I mean, do we want to let the people vote to choose to allow prostitution and those of kind of things? Where we going to draw the line? I don't think you can absolve the responsibility of legislating by referendums.

LOHR: But this year, the idea may have gained additional momentum because of the weak economy. Jim Tudor with the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores says allowing liquor sales will bring in more tax revenue, especially in tourist areas.

Mr. JIM TUDOR (Georgia Association of Convenience Stores): They arrive on a Sunday and don't know they can't purchase. And that's a sale you never get back. So there certainly would be an uptick in revenue.

LOHR: Tudor says people now drive across state lines to South Carolina, Alabama and Florida to get their Sunday drinks. But it's not clear how much sales would increase and how significantly it would impact the state budget. Still, there's a lot of money at stake. Last year, taxes on the sale of alcohol brought in $165 million to Georgia's coffers.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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