Columns » Max Brantley

Boozy Sunday

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The Arkansas legislature just opened the door to on-premise Sunday alcohol sales in all 33 wet counties. Previously, only a relative handful of places had Sunday drinks.

The law wasn't exactly a secret. State Alcoholic Beverage Control knew. The sponsor of the legislation knew. Alcohol sellers knew.

Lobbyists for church groups, traditional opponents to expansion of alcohol sales, did not. ABC Director Michael Langley said he talked about the legislation to Larry Page, leader of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, a long-time alcohol foe. Page knew that the bill was about a variety of alcohol fee increases and that it expanded Sunday hours at existing permitted businesses. He did not know about the more sweeping language. “Obviously we would have had to oppose that,” he said.

Sunday drinking has been a long war of attrition. “Incrementally, we're losing the battle,” Page said.

In 1987, the legislature opened the door to Sunday drink sales. It required two local option elections – one to approve the sale of mixed drinks (not just beer and wine) and the other to approve Sunday drink sales, and then only in establishments where 60 percent of revenues came from food.

Today, 12 cities and one entire county have liquor by the drink Monday through Saturday. Of those, nine cities and the county (Garland) also have approved Sunday on-premise alcohol sales.

Langley said it's his goal to bring consistency to the state's crazy-quilt alcohol laws. Langley said Sunday sales will put public alcohol sellers on an even playing field with private clubs, which have always had Sunday privileges.

The law did give cities and counties the power to take back the Sunday sales permission by ordinance. That's already happened in Green Forest, where knowledge of the sweeping state law change first surfaced thanks to an article by Ginger Shiras in the Harrison Daily Times. The city council, faced by angry church people, passed an ordinance to stop the Brew and Cue from its announced intention to start pouring brews last Sunday.

So what's new? The classic, hurried haze of an Arkansas legislative session produced another surprise for the people, but it was a wholly intended consequence.  “It was a stealth thing,” Page says.

I'm for the change, by the way. Let the working man have his beer the same as the swell sipping wine with Sunday brunch at the handful of restaurants that had Sunday drink permits. Let suds flow in all 33 wet counties on Sunday. The new rule instantly opened Sunday sales to roughly 700 beer bars and maybe 50 or so mixed drink permit holders not previously allowed to be open on Sunday.

Next up: Off-premise sales. The new law changes the requirement to permit Sunday off-premise sales from a local ordinance to a local option election that can be called by petition of 15 percent of voters. Only a couple of northern Arkansas cities took advantage of the ordinance route. This should encourage more Sunday sales by taking the onus off local officials fearful of riling church ladies. The people as a whole are presumed generally in favor of more access to alcohol.

You can expect the alcohol industry to begin bankrolling petition drives for off-premise Sunday sales. Little Rock would be a natural place to start. Another day of sales means more sales. See Missouri line retailers, busily selling six-packs, jugs of whiskey and lottery tickets on Sunday to thirsty Arkie gamblers. We'll soon have lottery tickets of our own. Sunday package sales would make a daily double.

 

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