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Georgia House votes to raise minimum age for bouncers, bar patrons
Bill also seeks to strengthen reporting of alcohol violations
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Michael Gatto

        Prompted by the death of 18-year-old Michael Joseph Gatto last summer, the Georgia House of Representatives approved legislation Friday to define what bars are, make 21 the minimum age to enter one or work as a bouncer, and place new demands on cities, counties and businesses to report alcoholic beverage violations.
        Rep. Geoff Duncan, a Republican from Gatto’s hometown of Cumming, was the bill’s lead sponsor, followed by Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-John’s Creek, and a Statesboro-area legislator, Rep. Jan Tankersley, R-Brooklet. Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, and Rep. Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro, also supported the bill in Friday’s 157-12 House vote.
        “It has become a really, really good piece of legislation that I’m proud to have my name on, for certain. …,” Duncan said Thursday in a phone interview. “We really dialed in on what the industry’s problems were. … This isn’t just a Statesboro problem. This is a Georgia problem.”
        Statesboro police and emergency medical personnel, called to Rude Rudy’s in University Plaza about 12:40 a.m. Aug. 28, found Gatto unconscious, with injuries from an apparent beating. Airlifted to Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, he died that afternoon.
        Police charged Grant James Spencer, then 20, a bouncer who was at the club but reportedly off-duty at the time, with aggravated battery and felony murder. Gatto had arrived as a freshman at Georgia Southern University about two weeks earlier. Spencer, who was also a GSU student, remains in jail awaiting trial.
        Rude Rudy’s closed after Gatto’s death, and the club’s owner surrendered his alcohol license to the city.
        The current bill will not make all the changes that Gatto’s parents, Michael and Kathy Lee Gatto, want to see in Georgia’s alcohol laws, but they were pleased that it passed the House with time left to become law this year.
        “We’re delighted that it’s gotten this far in this amount of time,” Michael S. Gatto said Friday. “We’re hopeful that it will pass the Senate, and then we still have a lot of work to do to get other things in the bill that we want next year.”

Required reporting
        In addition to the new minimum age for bars and bouncers, 2015’s House Bill 152 would require alcohol license holders to self-report any violations of local, state or federal alcohol laws, rules or regulations to the Georgia Department of Revenue within 45 days.
        It would also set a 45-day deadline for cities and counties to report any violations within their jurisdiction to the Department of Revenue. Under current law, cities and counties are supposed to report violations to the department. But very few do.
        “This law has been on the books for 30-plus years and nobody has really followed it,” Duncan said. “I think the Department of Revenue told us that there are only three cities and counties out of 600 or 700 that actually report.”
        So the bill also modernizes the language, requiring each local government to “adopt a policy and implement a process” for reporting, Duncan noted.
        The new bill would allow the revenue commissioner to impose fines of up to $750 for license holders that fail to report violations. It does not specify a penalty for cities and counties.

Bars, defined
        As passed by the House, the new legislation would make 21 the minimum age to enter a bar, but it would also define a bar as a place that derives 75 percent or more of its revenue from alcoholic beverages.
        Under the city’s alcohol ordinance, Statesboro officially has no bars, only restaurants that serve alcohol. These are either “sports restaurants,” required only to have a food permit, or ordinary restaurants, required to derive more than 50 percent of their revenue from food sales — but with this reported to the city through an unaudited process.
        By putting the 75 percent rule in state law, the Gattos and Duncan hope to give the Department of Revenue power over a distinct line between restaurants and bars. The department, Duncan said, will be able to look at monthly sales tax reports, which already classify food and drink revenues separately.
        “They’re going to have to think twice before they fudge a report because it’s now at the state level, so the repercussions to the business owner will be much greater,” said Gatto, interviewed separately.
        The bill does not limit the 21 minimum age for bouncers to those who work in bars as defined by the 75 percent rule. Instead, a bouncer is separately defined as “an individual primarily performing duties related to verifying age for admittance, security, maintaining order, or safety, or a combination thereof.”
        It then states that “no person shall allow or require” someone under age 21 to work as a bouncer “in an establishment where alcoholic beverages are dispensed.”
        The bill specifies no new minimum age for bartenders or servers. As is now the case, they would need only be 18 or over to work at restaurants that serve alcohol.
        “We’re not touching bartenders or servers,” Duncan said. “There are too many unknowns at this point … a lot of different business models.”
        But at bars as defined by the 75 percent rule, the legislation would prohibit most employees, as well as customers, under age 21, since they could not be allowed in the door. An exception would be if the younger person were accompanied by “his or her parent, guardian or spouse who is 21 years of age or older.”
        “It gives us half of what we want, because we wanted the bartenders to be 21,” Gatto said. “So, if it actually meets the requirements of a bar, there cannot be any employee or patron under 21.”
        Employees in the 18 to 20 age bracket, he contends, are subjected to peer pressure to serve to people their own age, and thus help attract underage drinkers.
        The bill does not include any requirement for places that sell alcohol to get liability insurance, which was the first hope the Gattos had expressed for “Michael’s Law” last fall.
        Although the legislation underwent some changes in the House Regulated Industries Committee, an insurance requirement was never part of the bill Duncan introduced. He says he saw little support for it in the Legislature and does not think it would get to the root of the problem.
        But the Gattos have not abandoned the idea.
        “We’re not going to sit back and rest,” Michael Gatto said. “We do want the insurance in there and we do want the training in there … so that is something we’ll be working on for next year.”
        Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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