Sunday sales bill dies in committee

ATLANTA - Controversial legislation letting local voters decide whether to allow Sunday retail sales of alcohol in their communities died Monday when a Senate committee declined to schedule it for a floor vote.

The powerful Rules Committee cleared several dozen bills for action by the full Senate today, Day 30 of the 40-day General Assembly session.

Under Senate rules, that's the deadline for legislation to pass in the chamber where it originated or be declared dead for the year.

But the Sunday sales bill didn't make the cut, despite heavy lobbying from representatives of convenience stores and supermarkets.

The legislation would have permitted cities and counties to ask their voters whether retail sales of beer and wine - or, in some areas, beer, wine and liquor - should be permitted on Sundays. As a concession to religious groups that opposed the bill, the measure was amended to restrict sales to Sunday afternoons and evenings.

The Georgia Association of Convenience Stores released polls several times before and during this year's session - including late last week - showing widespread support for the bill.

"The majority of Georgians would like to see this issue voted on," said Jim Tudor, a lobbyist for the industry.

But Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, the bill's chief sponsor, said those poll numbers apparently were more than offset by opposition from Christian conservatives, which made many of his Republican colleagues reluctant to go on record in favor of the measure.

Indeed, the bill languished for weeks in the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee before it finally was moved to the Rules panel, which has the final say over the legislation that reaches the Senate floor.

Harp blamed the delay for the bill's demise.

"It's just the dilemma of the bill having sat in committee so long," he said after Monday's vote. "The last-day crunch is always a difficult scenario."

Lobbyists for religious groups said the bill was strongly opposed by "values voters" in rural Georgia.

But Tudor said many Georgians, particularly those who have moved here from other states, don't understand why Georgia is one of just three states in the country that don't allow Sunday alcohol sales.

"This issue is going to continue," he said. "Most people agree that this legislation eventually will pass."