“In the last 15 years, we have begun to establish our own identity from Augusta,” North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones said on Friday. He said city officials from North Augusta, which has a population of nearly 22,000, asked Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, to introduce the bill.
“The city still lacks the amount of sit-down restaurants it should have for our size,” Jones said. “We have been told that restaurants won’t come to North Augusta if they can’t sell on Sunday.”
The current law allows a Sunday alcohol referendum only during a city general election, he said. But a bill introduced Wednesday by Hixon would allow the referendum to be held during other elections, such as this November’s presidential election, which typically has the highest voter turnout.
“I would like to remove any impediments that are keeping (businesses) from coming to North Augusta. A tremendous opportunity is available here,” Jones said.
Brian Tucker, the president of the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce, said that as neighboring municipalities ease restrictions, North Augusta leaders need to keep up.
“We’re going to be falling behind the curve if we don’t,” said Tucker, noting that Augusta and Aiken allow Sunday sales.
He said the city council would still have a role to play in whether the change occurs, but that Hixon’s bill is aimed at clearing the way. Without changing state law, such a referendum wouldn’t go before voters until April 2013.
“The legislation is operating under the assumption that at some point, this issue will be on the ballot in some manner, and we want to make sure it’s done as cost effectively as possible and represents the community as well as possible,” Tucker said.
Only a handful of restaurants in North Augusta sell alcohol, and none sell on Sundays, according to city officials. The city council has not decided whether the referendum would be for restaurants only or also include beer and wine sales at stores.
On Thursday, S.C. House Minority Leader Harry Ott questioned Hixon on the House floor.
“I want to make sure I hear this right,” said Ott, a St. Matthews Democrat.
“You’re in the Republican party, right? And that’s the party that advertises family values, is that right? And you’re asking us to vote for something that will make it easier for you to pass a bill to allow alcohol to be (sold) on Sunday?”
Hixon said he wants North Augusta to be able to compete with Augusta and Aiken. It would be up to the voters to decide, he said.
“So we’re going to throw family values out the window, and we’re going to go with economic development today?” Ott asked.
Hixon responded: “No, we’re going to all ride in the same bus.”
House lawmakers took off for a two-week break on Thursday. Hixon’s bill won’t see further action until mid-April at the earliest. But Hixon won approval to skip the committee process for his bill, which means as soon as he can address lawmakers’ concerns, the proposal will be removed from the House contested calendar and could receive a floor vote before heading to the Senate for consideration.
The bill, H. 5098, attracted co-sponsors Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken; Roland Smith, R-Warrenville; Bill Taylor, R-Aiken; Tom Young, R-Aiken; and James Harrison, R-Columbia. Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, introduced his version, S. 1381, on Wednesday.
On Friday, Hixon, a Baptist, said he’s not advocating for alcohol consumption, and that he simply wants to let the public vote on an issue and do so in a time frame that wouldn’t call for spending extra money on a special election.
The lawmaker said some chain restaurants have bypassed North Augusta because of the city’s Sunday restriction.
“If you’re Chili’s and you’re going to place a restaurant here, and you can have Sunday sales in Aiken and you can have Sunday sales in Augusta … Why wouldn’t you go to a place where you can make extra money on Sunday?” Hixon said.