By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - Legislation allowing voters to decide whether liquor can be sold on Sundays in supermarkets and convenience stores in their communities is back before the General Assembly.
A House committee voted unanimously Wednesday to attach the Sunday sales bill to a related Senate measure that would allow beer to be sold on Sundays at a minor-league baseball stadium to be built in Gwinnett County.
After languishing in the Senate for two years without reaching the floor, the amendment route was the only path left to get the controversial bill before lawmakers this late in the current session.
Georgia is one of only three states that prohibits Sunday retail sales of beer, wine or distilled spirits in any fashion.
Supporters of Sunday sales, including the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, say allowing liquor to be sold in restaurants on Sundays but not at retail stores puts grocery and convenience stores at a competitive disadvantage.
They say a bill the Senate passed last month authorizing beer sales at the future home of the Atlanta Braves' AAA affiliate near Buford provides the perfect vehicle for exposing that inconsistency.
"People could come to grocery stores and convenience stores, buy whatever they want and go home with it," said Rep. Roger Williams (R-Dalton), chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee. "I see that as much less dangerous than going to a ball game, drinking a beer, getting into an automobile and running the risk of killing people."
But several Protestant ministers, who addressed the committee, argued that making liquor more readily available in Georgia would lead to more alcohol-related traffic accidents and other societal ills, from binge drinking to suicide.
"I think we have enough alcohol," said the Rev. Mike Griffin, of Hartwell, representing the Christian Coalition of Georgia. "This body ought to be working on more restrictions ... This is the last thing we need."
Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), chief sponsor of the Gwinnett stadium bill, was irate that the House committee chose her legislation as a way to revive the Sunday sales issue.
She said combining the two measures would doom Sunday beer sales at the new ballpark, because of Gov. Sonny Perdue's threats to veto Sunday sales.
"My issue is a stadium issue," she said. "I want this stadium. I want the beer. But I'm not going to vote for Sunday sales."
Rep. Allen Freeman (R-Macon) responded by accusing Unterman of hypocrisy by pushing Sunday beer sales to baseball fans as an economic boon to Gwinnett County, while being unwilling to entertain the idea of Sunday sales elsewhere in Georgia.
"You support Sunday sales because it's good for you," he told the senator. "But you don't want to give the economic development to everybody else."
Williams and other supporters of Sunday sales also argued that the bill would uphold the principle of local control. Elected officials who don't want to allow alcohol sales in their community on Sundays wouldn't be forced to put the issue on the local ballot, he said.
The amended bill combining the two measures passed the committee unanimously.
It now goes to the Rules Committee, which will decide whether to bring it before the full House.