By 1915, Alabama was gripped by the same anti-alcohol sentiment as the rest of the country: The temperance movement was afoot, and there was little even established politicians could do to prevent it. That year, the Alabama Legislature overrode the veto of then-Gov. Charles Henderson to ban outright the sale of alcohol in the state.
“Alabama has beaten her public bars into soda fountains and quick-lunch rooms,” writer Julian Street explained that year in his travel log, “American Adventures: A Second Trip Abroad at Home.” “And though her club bars still look like real ones, the drinks served are so soft that no splash occurs when reminiscent tears drop into them.”
Only after searching at length did Street finally find a place to cry into a proper glass, and it was there — in a small shop in Birmingham where the original “bring your own beer” was coined — decades before the phrase became popular.
“It was this gentleman who told us that, since the state went dry,” Street wrote of the man in the Birmingham shop, “the ancient form, ‘R.S.V.P.’ on social invitations had been revised to ‘B.W.H.P.,’ signifying, ‘bring whisky in hip pocket.’”
Just over a century later, the sale of alcohol is legal in the state, but there are lots of strings attached — all of which connect back — in history or in spirit — to the dry spell that began in 1915. This regular legislative session in Montgomery, several bills dealing with various aspects of seemingly archaic alcohol regulations in Alabama are winding their way through the House and Senate, with one already headed to the governor.
The first bill, sponsored by Rep. James Buskey, has just made its way to the governor’s desk, having passed both the House and the Senate. House Bill 185, soon to be law, will, according to Buskey, help Alabama, and particularly Mobile, “catch up to the times” when it comes to alcohol laws.
The legislation amends current state law involving Mobile to clarify that sales of alcohol can occur on decks and patios directly adjacent to licensed businesses, even if they’re outside. The clarification became necessary after Alabama’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board stepped up enforcement against businesses that serve wine and other spirits — along with food — to customers at tables just outside restaurants in downtown.
“I heard from restaurant owners about how cumbersome it’s been, and how bureaucratic it is in many ways, and certainly how it’s not responsive to the need and the demand that our tourists and residents expect when they come downtown,” Mobile City Councilman Levon Manzie has said of ABC’s regulations.
Carol Hunter, spokeswoman for the Downtown Mobile Alliance, reiterated that sentiment. “I don’t know what the agenda is. I just know what the result is. The result is the decrease in revenue for the business, the city and the state.”
Once Buskey’s bill is law, that’s a decrease in revenue that businesses, the city and the state will no longer have to worry about — and one less unreasonable regulation of Alabama’s alcoholic freedom.
Another bill that attempts to do away with the ghosts of prohibition past is House Bill 353, sponsored by Rep. Juandalynn Givan. The bill, if passed, would allow localities to roll back the ban on alcohol sales on Sunday — allowing sales after 10:30 a.m. instead of after noon, as is the current law.
Givan has said the bill would help businesses increase revenues on a day when many say they lose money because of state law involving alcohol sales.
“I think people are understanding a little bit more about the bill,” Givan said of the legislation. “I think there’s going to be a huge level of outreach from the business community.”
Religious groups, on the other hand, are strongly opposed to the bill.
“Twelve o’clock noon is not early enough to start getting drunk?” Joe Godfrey, the head of Alabama Citizens Action Program, a Southern Baptist lobbying group that bills itself as “Alabama’s Moral Compass,” asked of the bill. “We have those roots and tradition as Christians so we should want to try to keep some traditions alive.”
HB353 has passed committee but failed to pass an early Budget Isolation Resolution vote, a necessary step in the legislative process, by a vote of 42-44. Rep. Givan says she will continue to pursue passage this session.
Farewell shot for state-owned liquor stores?
Senate Bill 260 is probably the most robust legislation this year dismantling an artifact of the prohibition era: state-controlled liquor stores. For decades, the state of Alabama has owned and operated ABC stores. Originally aimed at completely controlling the sale and intake of alcohol by citizens, the now private-public hybrid of liquor stores across Alabama make some conservatives in the halls of the State House uneasy. Enter Sen. Arthur Orr, who has for years introduced legislation to get the state out of the liquor business.
“The fundamental question, I think, for us as legislators and as a state, is should the state of Alabama be in the retail liquor business in the 21st century,” Sen. Orr has said. “Is this truly a function of state government?”
So far, Orr’s efforts have been unsuccessful, but not for lack of effort. Instead, an odd assortment of bedfellows — state Democrats, the state’s ABC board and religious groups — have opposed any changes.
“Sen. Orr, in his bill, contends that the revenue to the state will remain the same, that it will actually go up because he will be divesting 600 employees,” Dean Argo, an ABC board representative has said. “Our position is that you can’t save something you’re not spending. The state can’t save those 600 employees and benefits because the state’s not spending it. It’s coming from revenue generated from sales.”
Despite Argo’s claims, the fiscal note attached to Orr’s bill, and produced by an independent analyst, says the bill “could increase receipts to the [general fund] by an estimated range of $18 million to $21 million annually beginning in … 2023.”
But those alleged potential savings haven’t convinced opponents just yet.
“There’’s a lot of interest in continuing on the status quo by those involved in the current system,” said Sen. Orr. “But it’s a debate that needs to be had.”