Politics & Government

Another round on me, bartender? Not in North Carolina, unless this bill passes

Bar customers could order up to four drinks at once, and liquor stores could open on Sunday afternoons under a wide-ranging alcohol regulation bill that’s getting a big push from the hospitality and retail industries.

House Bill 536 is scheduled for its first hearing Tuesday in the House ABC committee. It would change a current regulation that prevents restaurants and bars from serving a customer more than one alcoholic drink at a time. The law is intended to prevent someone from buying drinks on behalf of someone who’s underage, but Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, said it creates a hassle when a group of people wants to send someone to the bar for another round. Each person has to make a separate trip to the bar.

“It’s nuts,” said McGrady, who sponsored HB 536. “In my view, it’s a silly sort of Prohibition-era type regulation.”

HB 536 would also create a “bar” category in state regulations — a missing category that forces bars that don’t serve food to be licensed as private clubs. That’s why some bars require new customers to pay a few dollars at the door as a “membership fee.”

“We have done these workarounds to get where we want to be,” McGrady said. The bill would also allow dogs at breweries and cideries that don’t have restaurants. And it would allow alcohol at college sporting events (a provision that’s in another bill that’s already passed the House) and on state-run ferries and trains.

The bill also would allow local flexibility in ABC store hours. Currently, all ABC stores must be closed on Sundays, but HB 536 would allow local ABC boards to open stores between noon and 5 p.m. on Sundays — but only if they choose to open.

ABC stores could also offer in-store liquor tastings and would be required to allow bars and restaurants to use electronic payment options, rather than forcing them to write checks.

McGrady is behind several alcohol deregulation bills this session, and he filed another one Thursday that focuses on more sweeping ABC changes favored by retailers, restaurants and bars. House Bill 971 would allow for privately owned liquor stores, licensed in a manner similar to current regulations for beer and wine.

“This licensure model has been very successful in ensuring public safety and preserving local revenue streams — all while streamlining operations and enabling private sector investment,” McGrady said in a news release.

The N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association and the Retail Merchants Association rolled out a lobbying campaign called “#FreeTheSpirits” to promote the bill, which will face opposition from religious groups that think the current government-run ABC system helps reduce alcoholism and other problems.

“There is not another product on the market that the state is in the business of selling by controlling, regulating, and allocating tax dollars,” Andy Ellen of the retailers’ group said in a news release.

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