ATLANTA - The hot topic of Sunday alcohol sales in Georgia is headed to the Senate floor after a proposal to let local voters decide the matter breezed through committee Wednesday.
Religious groups consistently oppose the idea and former Gov. Sonny Perdue vowed to veto any law allowing it. But none of the 11 speakers who addressed the committee opposed the idea, all agreeing that communities should make their own choices, not the state.
"Let the people in those areas vote," said Sen. Jim Bulloch, sponsor of Senate Bill 10. "(This bill) is about local control."
Georgia is one of only three states that still forbids stores from selling alcohol on the Sabbath. If approved, the proposal would let voters decide in local referendums whether they want the sales between 12:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. The issue could be before voters as soon as this fall.
Democratic Sen. Donzella James of Atlanta told the committee that her husband owned a liquor store for nearly 30 years, but that the family sold it after her son was killed by a drunken driver, making the choice a difficult one for her.
"I'd rather for people to purchase and take it home than to go out and drink," James said.
The committee voted 6-1 in favor of the bill, which now goes to the Senate. Gov. Nathan Deal, who took office last month, has signaled he supports a local approach.
"It's a new day," said Sen. Butch Miller, chairman of the State and Local Governmental Operations Committee, which took up the bill.
Those who spoke in support of the bill say the issue isn't about morality but about economic fairness, competition and common sense.
"It is frustrating to my grocers that they cannot take care of their customers when one of them attempts to buy a bottle of wine," said Kathy Kuzava, president of the Georgia Food Industry Association.
Similarly, supporters said it was unfair that grocery and liquor stores were forced to shelve their alcohol on Sundays, watching bottles pile up unsold at cash registers while restaurants and stadiums could serve beer, wine and spirits. Others complained that Georgia's businesses on the border are losing to their neighboring states, which all allow Sunday sales.
Amy Hillman, a working wife and mother of three, told senators she came to the hearing as a private citizen to urge them to support the bill. Hillman explained that between a busy workweek and juggling her children's activities on evenings and Saturdays, Sunday was the only day she has to buy groceries - and that she should be allowed to buy beer or wine when she shops.
"Sunday is the only time I can leisurely go through the grocery store," Hillman said, adding that she is trying to plan ahead by shopping on Sundays - refuting a common rebuttal by critics of the idea. "If my husband wants me to grab beer, I should be able to do that. We need that flexibility to take care of our families and our needs."
Georgia Christian Coalition President Jerry Luquire disagreed.
"Sunday is a special day, whether it's because of religion or tradition or habit," he said. "We just want to keep it this way as much as we can."
Luquire said opposition groups like his have also shifted their focus locally, and will use a grassroots strategy to fight the issue.
"We know that the General Assembly is gonna do this, with the governor's permission and enthusiasm," Luquire said. "This is gonna pass. It's gonna be on the ballot. We've done everything over the past five years that we can do."