Senators split on letting local voters decide

State Republican senators, who have positioned themselves as champions of limiting state government, on Wednesday split on the subject of Sunday sales of alcohol.


Senate Bill 10, introduced this session, would allow county or city voters to decide by referendum whether retailers can sell wine, beer and liquor locally on Sundays. The bill got a fast start and was favorably reported out of a Senate committee Feb. 3, but it stalled as Republican leaders debated how to proceed.

"This issue is something people should decide," Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, said Wednesday as he emerged from a meeting of Republican senators hashing out the issue.

"This is about local control," he said.

A few minutes later, Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, said local referenda on alcohol sales might be unconstitutional and could be bad for the state. The state constitution says the General Assembly should regulate alcohol, he said.

"I think the (Senate's) vote does not need to be about a local referendum. It needs to be about whether we are going to have Sunday sales of alcohol in Georgia or not," Seabaugh said.

He said he did not believe it to be in the best interest of Georgia to turn all tough questions over to local referenda.

"We use that idea of local control to punt a difficult issue down the road," Seabaugh said.

No one spoke against the bill during the Senate committee meeting when it was passed to the Senate Rules Committee with a favorable recommendation. That is where the bill is stuck. Republicans control the Senate and its flow of work through their 36-20 margin.

The delay allowed opponents to rally troops.

Jerry Luquire, the president of the Georgia Christian Coalition, teamed with Georgia Conservatives in Action to invigorate grass-roots opposition for a phone and e-mail campaign. Luquire said he believes that made senators rethink support.

Polls have shown voters in rural areas are more likely to oppose Sunday alcohol sales.

Rogers said he has heard little from his north metro Atlanta constituents.

"I've never had hardly anybody oppose it in my district," he said.

Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said last week that he polled Republican voters in Gwinnett County who overwhelmingly told him they wanted to vote on it locally.

Senate Majority Whip Cecil Staton, R-Macon, said he expected to poll GOP senators informally on the issue. Caucus votes are carried out in secret and are not subject to open records law.

"That will be the basis for further discussion of what we are going to do," Staton said of the caucus vote. But a caucus vote is not binding.

"You are not going to know until a vote is taken on the floor of both of these chambers where people have really and truly come down on this discussion at the end of the day," Staton said.