By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — A breweries bill that would circumvent the right of the people to decide via referendum what forms of alcohol should be sold in their communities would go from bad to worse if a proposed distilleries amendment is added to the mix, according to the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League.
The Rev. Creech told members of the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate this week that H 98, which would allow breweries to sell beer for on-premise consumption even in areas where voters had opposed such sales, would be “an unfair overreach of state government in favor of specific business interests at the expense of a community’s concerns for health and public safety.” He also urged them not to add to the measure a provision legalizing spirituous liquor sales at distilleries.
“The Christian Action League has angst about allowing the sale of any spirits outside of our state’s ABC stores,” he said. “It has been our experience that despite good intentions to keep such measures limited, they still have a tendency to morph with various forms of expansion over time. We’re concerned about this seemingly small change and how it might create the first crack in our ABC system for the sale of spirits.”
Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) sponsored the bill on behalf of the City of Hendersonville and Southern Appalachian Brewery, a craft beer producer that relocated from the Transylvania town of Rosman, where on-premise malt beverage sales are legal, to Hendersonville, where liquor-by-the-drink has been approved but on-premise beer sales have not. Rather than alter their business plan to qualify for a mixed drink license or request a referendum to seek voter approval for such sales, they are seeking the change in state law.
McGrady emphasized to Senators that the bill, which passed the House 70 to 46 on Monday after spirited debate late last week, would not allow breweries to open their brew-pubs in areas where no alcohol sales have been approved. But the Rev. Creech pointed out that at least five existing breweries would be allowed to ignore the will of the voters by serving up suds on premises. And another 11 communities that had specifically voted against such sales would be open to breweries setting up shop and over-riding their wishes as well.
“It should be of interest to you that when a vote was taken on this matter in the House, every lawmaker representing the areas where the breweries were located, all except the sponsor of the bill, voted against the measure,” the Rev. Creech said.
No vote on H-98 was taken in committee, though lawmakers asked questions of McGrady and of Sen. Martin Nesbit (D-Buncombe), who proposed an amendment that would basically add Senate Bill 713 to the measure, opening the door for “off premise” liquor sales in a location other an ABC store for the first time since the establishment of North Carolina’s ABC system more than 75 years ago.
Sen. Nesbit said the amendment would allow distilleries that are located in areas where an ABC store has been approved to sell their own products, similar to the way that wineries can market their wares to visiting tourists. He highlighted the importance of such tourism and said the purpose of the bill was simply to “get a little money out of their (tourists’) pockets” when they tour a distillery.
North Carolina has four active distilleries, according to the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, with about that many more holding permits but not currently operating.
Sen. E.S. Newton (R-Nash) said he could appreciate the commercial aspect of Nesbit’s amendment but that it seemed a bit of a “backdoor weakening of our ABC system.”
“Our question, that maybe we as a body ought to address, is whether or not we want to have an ABC system. I’m not sure this is the way we ought to tackle what to me is a larger question,” he said. “… I’m not sure that hitching it to a brewery bill is the way for us to tackle that.”
The Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate is expected to take up the issue again soon.