Politics & Government

Sunday ABC store hours, ferry alcohol spark debate in NC House

A wide-ranging alcohol deregulation bill cleared a state House committee on Tuesday despite efforts by one Republican to delete the measure’s most controversial provisions.

House Bill 536 would allow bar customers to order up to four drinks at once, allow liquor stores to open on Sunday afternoons, lift the five-bottle cap on on-site liquor sales at craft distilleries, and allow beer and wine on the new Ocracoke Island passenger ferry.

Most of the provisions were requested by industry groups, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican. “In an effort to not have 17 different bills, what we did as (committee) chairs was pull them together in one omnibus bill,” he said.

But the measure faced opposition from social conservatives. Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League said lawmakers are giving in to the influence of “Big Al(cohol)“ without considering public health consequences. And Rep. Pat Hurley, a Randolph County Republican, repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to remove sections of the bill through amendments.

Hurley objected to the ferry provision, which failed to become law last session. The latest proposal would allow alcohol sales only on the trip from Hatteras to Ocracoke, with no alcohol allowed on the return trip, when many passengers would likely be driving afterwards.

A representative from the N.C. Department of Transportation said the goal is to add revenue to make the passenger ferry service more financially sustainable. But Hurley noted that some Ocracoke visitors drive golf carts on the island. “Something about transportation and alcohol, I don’t think they mix too well,” she said.

She also opposed the provision allowing four drinks at once, saying it would “allow people to drink four drinks at closing time so they can guzzle them, get into their cars and drive off.”

Restaurants and bars say current law makes it too difficult for someone to order a round of drinks for their group because each person must currently approach the bar individually.

Ultimately, Hurley was successful in amending out one provision, which would have tweaked laws governing strip clubs and other adult entertainment venues that serve alcohol. McGrady said that provision had encountered concerns from lawyers.

Supporters of the distillery provisions hailed the changes as a major boost to craft distilleries. “We need to unleash it just like we did with our wineries,” said House Majority Leader John Bell, a Wayne County Republican. “Look at what the breweries have done for downtowns all across our state. This is an actual jobs bill, don’t look at it as an alcohol bill.”

In addition to allowing distillers to sell an unlimited amount of their product to visitors (instead of a five bottle per year cap, with a tour required first), the bill would allow for tastings in ABC stores, and it would allow distilleries to ship their product directly to customers in other states where such shipments are allowed. Hurley, however, said the changes would damage the current ABC system, which she argues is working effectively.

The bill was approved in the House ABC Committee and now goes to the House Finance Committee.

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