Anniston Sunday alcohol sales bill passes House committee; Vote trumps opposition by two local lawmakers
by Tim Lockette
MONTGOMERY — Anniston's Sunday alcohol sales bill is back.

A crucial committee in the House of Representatives voted unanimously Tuesday to approve two versions of a bill that would allow the Anniston City Council to approve alcohol sales on Sundays, moving both bills to the full House for a vote.

The 7-0 vote by the Local Legislation Committee overrides the opposition of half the members of Calhoun County's House delegation.

"I'm not happy with it," said Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, one of two local legislators who had opposed the bill. "I think they're setting a bad precedent."

The Anniston City Council asked the Legislature earlier this year for a bill that would give the council the power to approve Sunday alcohol sales. It's an option city leaders have said they'd like to have in their effort to attract more tourism to the city, which hosts well-known bicycle and foot races.

One version of the bill sailed through the Alabama Senate in February, aided by the support of Sen. Del Marsh, the Anniston Republican who serves as the body's president pro tempore.

Still, the bill seemed dead on arrival in the House. On the day the bill passed the Senate, Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, opposed the measure, citing the Bible and saying he couldn't vote for a measure that would expand the use of alcohol on Sundays.

Shortly afterward, Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, moved from skepticism about the bill to a clear "no" vote. Wood said he didn't want to build Anniston's economy on alcohol. Republican Rep. K.L. Brown of Jacksonville, whose district doesn't touch Anniston, said at the time that he'd likely vote with the majority of the delegation.

That left Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, as the only clear House vote for the measure — one Calhoun County vote out of four. By House custom, local measures typically pass by a wide margin if they have the unanimous support of the local delegation, and often don't reach the House floor if the delegation is divided.

The Local Legislation Committee trumped that custom Tuesday, holding a five-minute meeting to vote in favor of Marsh’s bill and a similar version proposed by Boyd. Both bills are bound for the full House.

Committee chair Greg Wren, R-Montgomery, said the move was a way to get ready for the possible end of a Democratic effort to contest all local bills.

Democratic leaders in the House pledged earlier in the session to contest every local bill after the Feb. 28 passage of the Alabama Accountability Act, a bill that provides tax credits for some parents with children in private schools. After Gov. Robert Bentley vetoed a bill by Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, to post volunteer security guards in schools, Morrow pledged to fight all local legislation as well.

"When things do start moving again, we want to have something ready," Wren said. He said little local legislation had come to the committee since the Democratic effort began. Wren said it was impossible to predict whether the Anniston bill would pass the House, but said it has little chance if the Democratic block isn't lifted.

Rare move

It's fairly rare for the Local Legislation Committee to approve a bill when the local delegation is divided, lawmakers say.

"I did it once, years ago," said Wood. "It's within the power of the full committee to override the local delegation. You've just got to work the committee really hard."

Wood said he'd convinced the committee to approve a bill despite the opposition of the late Rep. Lea Fite eight or nine years ago.

Hurst said he'd heard of the committee overriding a local delegation with a tie vote, but he'd never seen it during his House career.

"A tie game is a tie game," he said. "It doesn't go any further."

Boyd introduced her bill at the Local Legislation Committee meeting, and was the only Anniston-area legislator at the meeting. She wouldn't comment on how she convinced the group to meet and vote for the measure.

"I'm not giving away my secrets," she said. "I have more legislation that I'm trying to get through."

Boyd said that she and Marsh both campaigned for the bill. Marsh acknowledged that he'd been in touch with the House committee.

"I talked to Greg Wren, and I explained that this is something that will help with economic development," he said.

Brown, however, may have been the crucial vote. As late as this month, he indicated that he probably wouldn't vote for Anniston Sunday sales. He said conversations with business owners and friends back home convinced him that Anniston Sunday sales are a good way to promote business.

"There are a lot of restaurant chains that won't locate in Anniston because they don't have seven-day sales," he said. Brown said that he'd had only one email against Sunday sales, and many calls in favor of the bill.

Brown said the bill probably wouldn't have passed without at least two of the four members of the delegation supporting it.

Next steps

Wood, the Saks representative who opposed the bill, said he probably wouldn't actively campaign against it as it approaches a full House vote.

"I've done what I can do in not signing off on it," he said. "I'll tell people how I feel, and I'll vote against it."

Hurst wasn't so sure. He said his district includes parts of Oxford, and the people of Oxford are opposed to Sunday sales. He said he was also worried about the possibility that possession of open containers in public could become legal.

"If it does come before the (Anniston) council, I hope they have wisdom enough to establish the districts in a way that it's minimized," he said.

House and Senate versions of the same bill are not uncommon. Both the Boyd and Marsh bills would allow the Anniston City Council to approve Sunday alcohol sales on-premises — in restaurants — if they choose, and to vote separately to approve retail sales on Sunday as well.

It's not clear when either Anniston Sunday sales proposal would reach the House floor. Tuesday was the 16th day of the Legislature's 30-day session.

Marsh is sponsoring a similar bill that would allow the city of Weaver to vote on Sunday alcohol sales. That legislation was introduced to the Senate in March, but is still awaiting committee action.

Homebrewing passes House

A similar divide among local legislators emerged in a House vote Tuesday on a statewide bill that would allow residents of “wet” counties to brew limited amounts of beer or wine at home for personal use. Boyd and Brown voted for the bill, while Hurst and Wood voted against it.

The homebrew bill, as it is popularly known, passed 58-33 and heads to the Senate.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

© 2013