'Brunch bill' now part of cocktail of changes to NC liquor laws

A measure to allow alcohol sales before noon on Sunday is advancing in the House after being blended with other proposed changes to state liquor laws.

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Matthew Burns
RALEIGH, N.C. — A measure to allow alcohol sales before noon on Sunday is advancing in the House after being blended with other proposed changes to state liquor laws.
Senate Bill 155, dubbed the "brunch bill" by observers, initially called for allowing cities and counties to decide whether to allow local restaurants and bars to serve alcohol beginning at 10 a.m. on Sundays. The House Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee expanded that Thursday to allow supermarkets and other locations to sell beer and wine earlier on Sundays as well.
The new bill also added in provisions from House Bill 500, which focused on craft brewers. That measure cleared the House in April but is mired in Senate committees. Putting all of the provisions together in a substitute bill could speed its passage.

The resulting alcohol omnibus drew sharp criticism from both religious conservatives and the local ABC boards.

"This legislation repeals current law, a law that's largely been in deference and respect to churches, and it begs the question, where's that respect now?" said Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. "I think we deserve that respect to continue, and by the way, there's nothing wrong with government working to provide an optimum environment for religion to flourish. This legislation diminishes that."

Creech specifically targeted provisions that would allow distillers to sell directly to consumers outside of North Carolina, saying it would aggravate underage drinking in other states, and to provide tastings of their liquor at special events with a $200 permit.

"This measure places liquor on the same par as beer and wine, something we have never done before," he said. "We have traditionally and correctly seen liquor as potentially more problematic, and this is why we have ABC stores."

John Carr, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of ABC Boards, said a provision that would allow distillers to sell up to five bottles of liquor a year to anyone who tours the distillery, undermines the ABC sales system.

"Does it end with five bottles?" Carr asked, noting lawmakers two years ago started allowing distillers to sell one bottle per person per year after tours. "It is not inconvenient to go to an ABC store. They are located, on average, 2.8 miles from the distilleries."

Donald Bryson, state president of Americans for Prosperity, said a few dozen distillers across North Carolina selling a few bottles a year to visitors won't dent the billion-dollar ABC system. The state needs to encourage the entrepreneurs who have started distilleries instead of demonizing them, he said.

"We're a state that created a multibillion-dollar sport because of distilling," Bryson said.

Jim Beley, general manager of the Umstead Hotel in Cary and a representative of the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association, praised the Sunday morning alcohol sales provision, noting it could generate millions of dollars in annual sales statewide – as well as added tax revenue.

"Sunday brunch continues to be a major part of people's vacation experience but also a popular social scene for families on the weekends," Beley said. "Our guests are often disappointed that we cannot offer them a celebratory beverage prior to 12:01 p.m."

Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, one of a handful of lawmakers to oppose the omnibus bill, bemoaned the growing access to alcohol in the state and worried about the potential increase in alcohol-related crashes.

"We're saturating North Carolina with this, and I'm sorry," Hurley said. "I'm very concerned, especially with so many opportunities for them to decide to take a drink and then drive."

But Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, said beer and alcohol have become so ingrained in weekend culture, from football games to fishing trips, that the state cannot continue to fight the tide.

"If people are abusing alcohol and causing accidents, I would say that's more of a case that we're just not doing our mission of teaching these people restraint and good behavior," Brawley said. "What we really need to do is to get them into church where we don't serve alcohol."

Other provisions in the bill include the following:

  • Allows auctioneers to sell high-end wine and liquor with a $750 permit per event
  • Allows retailers to sell beer in "crowlers," which are containers sealed on site
  • Allows home brewers to participate in exhibitions and competitions
  • Allows "farm breweries" – a farm that grows hops or grain and then uses the crops to make beer – to sell their brew themselves, even if the brewery is in a dry county
  • Allows wine tastings at farmers markets

The bill easily cleared the committee on a voice vote, but it still has to clear at least one more House committee before getting floor votes in the House and the Senate.

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