By Hunter Hines
Christian Action League
March 8, 2019
RALEIGH – This week, SB 124 – Small Town Mixed Beverage Election Reqs. was calendared to be heard on Wednesday in the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee, but was pulled from consideration.
According to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Alexander (R-Franklin, Wake), SB 124, seeks to carve out an exception for a mixed beverage election on the promise of a nice restaurant coming to the small town of Bunn, N.C. Whether the restaurant would become more than a promise, however, is contingent upon the community approving mixed beverages.
Under current law, communities with less than 300 voters are not allowed to have an alcohol referendum. Bunn, which Alexander represents, has less than 300 voters and wants an exception.
Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said that he was prepared to oppose the legislation during the committee meeting, but since it was pulled, he has had positive exchanges with the bill’s sponsor about the Christian Action League’s concerns.
“I don’t mean to say that he’s given up on the bill,” said Creech. “But he has delayed the bill’s hearing to get more information. Moreover, he wants to demonstrate that he’s listening. I appreciate that very much.”
Creech says that small towns, rural and unincorporated areas, especially those of less than 300 voters rarely have the demographics, even in proximity to them, necessary to support a fine dining establishment. Instead, these areas are more adept to smaller establishments that state law requires only 36 seats and a grill to be defined as a restaurant. With the food to alcohol ratio now being as low as 70/30, these places are generally not-so-fine dining establishments and more problematic for communities.
Creech said, “I think it would be presumptuous to think that if mixed beverages were approved in the locale where the exception for the referendum is being sought, that there wouldn’t be other places which would also want to obtain a mixed beverage permit – places this community really wouldn’t prefer to come.”
“This is why we have thresholds for alcohol referendums,” said Creech. “Thresholds are meant to prevent negative outcomes like the additional strain on local law enforcement’s limited presence and their general inability to address the demands produced by increased alcohol outlet density, as well as the negative nature of some of the establishments that would follow the approval of a mixed drinks referendum in that area.”
“The process is meant to be a little more cumbersome to preserve the public’s health and safety,” he added.
The legislation would also provide special privileges for the selling of mixed beverages by those living within the stated boundaries of the bill. But those living in the same area outside of these boundaries would be left out.
“What happens is the businesses in proximity to the community that got an exception for a referendum and then won mixed drinks sales privileges, argue that they were left out and now at a competitive disadvantage. So they want an exception made for them too. And on it goes, making our alcohol laws terribly convoluted and full of disparities,” added Creech.
The Christian Action League is also concerned about the possible constitutionality of SB 124.
Article II, Section 24 and Article XIV, Section 3 of the state constitution forbids the General Assembly from enacting laws that regulate local trade. Alcohol is considered a trade in North Carolina. The proposed legislation appears to regulate trade in a manner that applies to one locale and cannot be applied statewide.
Similar laws have been voided by Superior Court of Wake County concerning Lumberton, Reaves v. N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, and Halifax, Frazier v. N.C. Alcohol Beverage Control Commission. Another similar law was declared unconstitutional and voided by the Superior Court of Swain County in Swain County v. N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
Legislative staff has informed Sen. Alexander that his bill meets constitutional muster. However, the Christian Action League is not convinced that the staff’s assessment of the bill’s constitutionality is correct. The Christian Action League is seeking its own legal opinion at this time.
SB 124 may be heard next week in the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee, Wednesday or Thursday, March 13th or 14th.
If your State Senator is listed below as a member of the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee, please contact him or her to discourage the passage of SB 124 – Small Town Mixed Beverage Election Reqs.
Senate Commerce & Insurance Committee with names & phone numbers: 2019-2020
Chuck Edwards Chuck.Edwards@ncleg.net
Rick Gunn Rick.Gunn@ncleg.net
Ted Alexander Ted.Alexander@ncleg.net
Harry Brown Harry.Brown@ncleg.net
Ben Clark Ben.Clark@ncleg.net
Valerie Foushee Valerie.Foushee@ncleg.net
Todd Johnson Todd.Johnson@ncleg.net
Paul Lowe Paul.Lowe@ncleg.net
Tom McInnis Tom.McInnis@ncleg.net
Floyd McKissick Floyd.McKissick@ncleg.net
Paul Newton Paul.Newton@ncleg.net
Gladys Robinson Gladys.Robinson@ncleg.net
Norman Sanderson Norman.Sanderson@ncleg.net
Vickie Sawyer Vickie.Sawyer@ncleg.net
Erica Smith EricaD.Smith@ncleg.net