North Augusta voters key to Sunday alcohol sales

COLUMBIA — Whether to allow Sunday alcohol sales in North Augusta is now up to the local government leaders and the voters.

A bill to allow voters to decide in November whether to toss out the current ban has cleared its last effective legislative hurdle. Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, introduced the bill, H. 5098, at the request of North Augusta business and city leaders, who want the city’s business climate to be competitive with neighboring Aiken and Augusta.

In the Senate, the bill passed, 37-1, with Sen. David Thomas, a Greenville Republican, casting the no vote May 31. The House passed Hixon’s bill, 84-17, last week, with almost all but two of the no votes cast by Republicans.

The margins of passage in both houses were great enough to allow lawmakers to override a veto, if the governor issued one, but Hixon said Monday his discussion with Gov. Nikki Haley’s staff indicated the Republican governor is not expected to object to the bill.

Hixon said he thinks North Augusta voters will approve the change. He stressed that a ballot referendum on the issue is already permitted but that his legislation merely shifts the possible timing of the vote to coincide with the November presidential election, if city officials choose. Otherwise, the vote could come no sooner than April, which is expected to be a low-turnout election and one that might be held at extra cost in the event no other issue or candidate is on the ballot.

The Columbia-based Palmetto Family nonprofit, which promotes socially conservative policies, came out against Hixon’s proposal after he introduced it.

“Bills like this make it easier to increase the flow of alcohol, and that isn’t smart or safe right now,” its president, Oran Smith, said last month, citing driving dangers.

The legislation has also drawn warnings from some religious conservatives in the community. Liquor store owners, too, were concerned that they would have to be open for business seven days a week in order to stay competitive – a move that would increase their operating costs while keeping their revenues about the same.

Hixon said his intent is focused strictly on restaurants.

“I’m not for opening up liquor stores,” Hixon said Monday. “I’m totally against that. I am for letting the people decide whether they want to have a drink with Sunday supper.”

City officials have said they have flexibility with what is ultimately presented on the ballot. The mayor could not be reached Monday.

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