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Sunday alcohol sales revived in Georgia Legislature

    ATLANTA - A plan to allow the Sunday sale of alcohol was revived in the Legislature on Tuesday _ clearing a committee where its fate appeared bleak weeks earlier.

    On a 4-3 vote, the Senate Regulated Industries and Public Utilities Committee approved the plan, which would let local communities vote on whether to allow liquor, beer and wine to be sold by the package on Sundays.

    The bill would move Georgia from a list of just three states that do not allow stores to sell any kind of alcohol on Sundays. Connecticut and Indiana are the others.

    The next step for the plan would be a vote by a committee that sets the agenda for the full Senate. It would need a positive vote there before moving to the House, then to the desk of Gov. Sonny Perdue _ who has said he has reservations about it.

    Tuesday's vote was unusual in that four Democrats cast the votes in favor of the bill on a committee that, like the entire Legislature, is controlled by Republicans.

    Several Republican committee members _ including President pro-tem Eric Johnson, of Savannah, and Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, of Lyons _ were not present.

    The plan's most vocal critic also was a Democrat.

    "It's like saying there should be no church on Sunday or gospel music or televangelists on TV," said Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah, the lone Democrat to vote against the plan. "We're doing some bad things."

    The bill's sponsor, Sen. Seth Harp, R-Columbus, calls it an issue of fairness and local control.

    Restaurants and bars that serve food already can sell alcohol on Sundays. He said leaders in communities opposed to Sunday sales may simply not call for a vote and that citizens who don't want it can vote against it if a vote is held.

    Harp downplayed the comments by Thomas, including those at a previous meeting when she questioned Harp's religious faith for sponsoring the bill.

    "She's a passionate person; people who are passionate speak passionately," said Harp, who called Thomas a friend. "You've got to respect them for their passions, but you don't have to agree with them."

    There was little discussion of the plan before the vote, with senators mainly focusing on retooling language in the bill. That was in sharp contrast to a Feb. 28 meeting, which was marked by heated testimony from religious leaders opposed to the bill.

    They argued that the plan disrespects the Sabbath.

    "It's a bad idea to do this to folks and subject local communities to the pressure that's going to be put on them by the merchants of misery," Jim Beck, state president of the Christian Coalition, said Tuesday.

    He said that while support for the bill is strong in metro Atlanta, rural communities don't want it.

    "If you buy your groceries at Piggly Wiggly, you get your hair cut at a barber shop and you go to church on Sunday, this bill matters," Beck said.

    Harp first introduced a Sunday sales bill that applied only to beer and wine sales, but it was bottled up since January amid opposition from religious conservatives and the liquor industry. Recently liquor was added to the legislation, which brought that industry's powerful lobbying force on board.

    Grocery store officials have said allowing them beer and wine sales would result in more than $4 million in additional tax revenue for the state. A spokesman for Distilled Spirits Council of the United States said allowing liquor sales would bring up to $4.8 million in increased taxes.

    The bill still faces several major hurdles if it is to become law.

    Some supporters suspect that the Senate's Rules committee, which decides whether to put a bill on the full Senate's calendar, will ignore the measure. But Harp said he's confident that won't happen.

    "I think it will be well received," he said, saying he's talked to several members of that panel about the legislation.

    If it clears the Senate and the House, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue still could veto it.

    Perdue, who says he does not drink alcohol, said in January it would "take a lot of persuasion" for him to sign the bill.

On the Net:

Senate Bill 137, http://www.legis.state.ga.us/

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