Originally created 10/30/04

Minibottle campaign turns nasty



COLUMBIA, S.C. - The campaign over whether South Carolina bars and restaurants should continue to pour drinks from tiny bottles of liquor has become anything but hospitable.

The two sides were in court Friday, fighting over whether a new group formed to fight the constitutional amendment ending the minibottle's reign over the state could use "hospitality" in their name.

It was the latest dispute in a campaign that started quietly but is ending with a bang.

Voters on Tuesday will decide whether to amend the state constitution to allow liquor to be poured from any size bottle. Currently, the constitution requires bars and restaurants to use minibottles - the 1.7 ounce bottles of liquor most commonly seen on airplanes. Normal drinks across the country are 1 to 1.25 ounces.

The vote won't immediately change the way drinks are poured. The General Assembly would have to pass a bill allowing free pour of liquor from bigger bottles. And that's what has caused most of the controversy.

A group called the Palmetto Hospitality Association has run television ads ending with the line "No plan, no way." The ads ask voters if they can trust the Legislature to write the new liquor law, which would allow free pour.

The South Carolina Hospitality Association, which opposes the minibottles, accused the new group of trying to confuse people over the two organizations and asked a judge to step in on Friday.

But before the judge could take up the matter, the Palmetto Hospitality Association agreed to include a disclaimer in their ads saying the group is not affiliated with the South Carolina Hospitality Association.

"The damage has been done," said South Carolina Hospitality Association President Tom Sponseller, who has had lawmakers and acquaintances ask him why his organization changed its mind on minibottles.

Sponseller said his group hasn't. The state association was formed in 1947 and lobbies for restaurants, bars and hotels. It has been fighting for free pour liquor for at least a decade.

The Palmetto association was formed earlier this month mostly by liquor store owners and distributors. The group won't reveal its members, but spokeswoman Meg Stanley said they include some bars and restaurants.

No matter what happens Tuesday, the group intends to stay together and lobby lawmakers. "These folks are people who just wanted to be represented for what they believe is best for their business," Stanley said.

They may need all the help they can get. Some legislators aren't happy with the tone of the Palmetto Hospitality Association ads. One of them features a woman in an empty restaurant who asks "can we trust the Legislature with a blank check?"

But that kind of a bill was stopped in the General Assembly by liquor store owners and distributors, said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill.

"It would be less misleading if they went ahead and told the rest of the story, which is they kept us from having the enabling legislation," said Hayes, who has fought to get the amendment on the ballot for a decade.

State Sen. Dick Elliot, D-North Myrtle Beach, said he expects if the amendment is approved that businesses will still have the option of using minibottles. But there was no need for the enabling legislation because voters could reject the amendment, he said.

"I suppose the senate members felt like, 'Why should we belabor ourselves on enabling legislation until we have guidance from the voters,'" Elliot said. "If they say no, we will have wasted our time."

Groups wanting to change the law have placed newspaper ads this weekend. They will talk about how the amendment has the support of Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, law enforcement and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

They will be trying to influence a large number of undecided voters. A recent poll showed about 44 percent of those surveyed favor the bigger bottles compared with 35 percent who would opt to keep the miniature version. However, about 20 percent of the likely voters surveyed had not made up their minds.