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Dave Williams - Sunday sales debate pits "two Georgias"

There was a time when Georgia politicians wouldn't dare even talk about loosening restrictions on the sale of liquor in an election year.

But during the current session of the General Assembly, some lawmakers appear to be pushing so hard to legalize Sunday retail sales of beer, wine and distilled spirits because voters will be going to the polls a few months from now.

Supporters and opponents of Sunday sales have done polling on the issue in the past year, and both say Georgia voters are on their side.

The fact that both may be right is as good an example as any of the "bifurcation" of Georgia, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. Whether it's smart or dumb for a politician to back Sunday sales depends on geography.

"You've got two very different constituencies in this state," Bullock said. "You've got rural Georgia, which I expect would be the location of most opposition. To get by them, you might want to avoid it in an election year.

"In metro Atlanta and urban areas, you'd like to be able to point to that and say, 'We took care of it for you.'"

At issue for the second year in a row is legislation that would let local governments ask their voters whether to allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell beer and wine on Sundays.

"Wet" counties that currently allow the sale of distilled spirits also could put Sunday retail sales of liquor on their ballots.

Each side of the debate has its leading advocates.

Supermarket and convenience store chains and their lobbyists at the Capitol are pushing hard for Sunday sales.

Christian conservatives are opposing the measure, a fight being spearheaded by the Georgia Christian Coalition.

During last year's debate, the retailers cited a number of media polls showing strong support for Sunday sales.

For example, a poll conducted in January 2007 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed 68 percent support statewide. As would be expected, that support went up to 80 percent in metro Atlanta.

Unlike rural Georgia, the metro region is awash with residents who have moved into the state in recent years from states that allow liquor to be sold on Sundays.

Only three states don't allow Sunday sales: Connecticut, Indiana and Georgia.

This year, supporters have brandished a less scientific but arguably more dramatic indicator of Sunday sales fervor - an anonymous Web site signed by nearly 50,000 people in favor of the bill.

"The majority of Georgians clearly agree Sunday sales of alcohol should be something for local communities to decide," Kathy Kuzava, a lobbyist for the grocery store industry, told members of the House Regulated Industries Committee this month.

But Jim Beck, president of the Georgia Christian Coalition, said his group has done some surveying of its own that Republican politicians should heed.

Last year, the organization polled primary voters in the districts of members of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee and found 61 percent opposed to Sunday sales.

Some of those districts are inside metro Atlanta, the supposed hotbed of pro-Sunday sales voters.

Beck said GOP lawmakers can't afford to ignore primary voters for obvious reasons. Yet, particularly in the metro region, he said some incumbents haven't learned that lesson.

"You're seeing Republican legislators who feel like they've been able to draw safer districts, so they don't feel they have to worry about their base," he said.

Beck warned that the Christian Coalition is watching the Sunday sales issue carefully with the idea of fielding primary challengers to some GOP incumbents who have strayed too far.

But even supporters concede that Sunday sales shouldn't be forced onto communities where it would be so unpopular as to threaten the political futures of legislators who vote for it.

"This is a local-option bill," said Jim Tudor, executive director of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores. "Nothing will happen unless local communities make the decision to put this before their voters ... That's why we have community standards and local control."

Added Bullock: "What may be good for Forsyth County you might not want to have when you get up to Pickens County."

But Beck said that only works if you could put a fence around Forsyth County or any other community where voters decide they want Sunday sales.

"People could buy it and go someplace else," he said. "It doesn't stop there."