Senate Bill 10: http://www.legis.ga.gov
ATLANTA — Turns out an unwilling governor wasn't the only obstacle to a vote on Sunday alcohol sales.
After breezing through legislative committees with no opposition from Christian conservatives or liquor sales groups, the proposal seemed headed for quick passage in the Legislature after years of stonewalling by former Gov. Sonny Perdue. Lawmakers touted the issue — which would offer municipalities the option of putting the question to voters — as one of local control, not morality.
But some opposition groups that had vowed to fight the issue locally are back at the Capitol pressuring lawmakers to kill the bill in the General Assembly before it hits Georgia communities.
Senate Republican leaders met Wednesday to debate whether the bill can move forward this year. Majority Leader Chip Rogers called the likelihood of a vote this session a "coin toss."
"If we don't have the majority of our senators in favor of it, we're not going to bring it to the floor," said the Woodstock Republican, who is a co-sponsor of the bill and added that the referendum has overwhelming support in his district. "I suspect if the support is there, it'll come up this session. It has not hit a wall."
Georgia is one of only three states that still forbids stores from selling alcohol on the Sabbath. If approved, the proposal would let voters decide in local referendums whether they want the sales between 12:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. The issue could be before voters as soon as this fall.
Putting the decision into voters' hands has become the refrain this year for would-be GOP supporters, giving cover to conservatives with religious reservations about the bill.
"This is how you're going to stop it in rural Georgia," said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who supports a local vote but opposes Sunday alcohol sales. "By having an option, the locals get to stop it. It would not pass in my area."
Hopes were high among supporters at the start of the General Assembly that a vote on Sunday alcohol sales would happen. Threatened for years with a veto from Perdue should the bill come to his desk, lawmakers were bolstered this year by newly-elected Gov. Nathan Deal's support for local control on the matter.
The momentum continued into February. Among the witnesses testifying before a Senate committee hearing on the bill two weeks ago was a working mother who urged support for the measure so she could pick up her husband's beer with her groceries during Sunday shopping trips.
Absent at that hearing were voices of dissent, including the Georgia Christian Coalition. After the hearing, spokesman Jerry Luquire said such groups had shifted their focus locally to a grassroots strategy and assumed the Legislature's position was a foregone conclusion.
"This is gonna pass," he said at the time. "It's gonna be on the ballot."
The measure has the support of the Georgia Food Industry Association, which represents grocery stores, and the Georgia Alcohol Dealers Association.
Supporters said it was unfair that grocery and liquor stores were forced to shelve their alcohol on Sundays, while restaurants and stadiums could serve beer, wine and spirits. Others complained that Georgia's businesses near the state line are losing to their counterparts in neighboring states that allow Sunday sales.
Lawmakers are also hearing from constituents that they want the right to vote on the issue locally. For example, Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, asked followers on his Facebook page for their thoughts, drawing more than 70 comments in a matter of hours Tuesday — most in support of Sunday alcohol sales. He declined to discuss the issue further.
Sen. Butch Miller, chairman of the State and Local Government Operations committee, which handled the bill, said the issue got an open, just and fair hearing.
"It's a long way from being a law," said Miller, R-Gainesville, who supports a referendum. "It's certainly not too late for voices to be heard. They need to be heard. It's sad to me that they weren't heard earlier."
In the weeks since, local opponents have leaned on lawmakers to oppose the legislation, and Luquire said the fight in the Legislature is now back on.
"That was my mistake," said Luquire, who recently renewed his license to lobby at the Capitol. "I felt it was going to sail right through the Senate. But we think it's a big battle. The grassroots is stopping legislation they don't want. That's what has stopped the bill. People were mad about this thing coming up again."
Opposition is also brewing in the Senate. Sharpsburg Republican Sen. Mitch Seabaugh is questioning whether allowing voters to decide the issue would be in violation of the state's constitution.
"I don't believe it's in our best interest to become a referendum state," Seabaugh said. "It punts a difficult issue down the road. We should make that decision for the entire state."
That the conversation has shifted so dramatically in two weeks is a positive sign, Luquire said.
"We're pleased that the cork is still in the bottle," he said. "Hopefully, it will stay there."