Court hurdles cleared, corrective bills passed… liquor sales good to go (on)

It’s been a long road for Blount County, but the Legislature passed bills ratifying wet/dry elections in 38 state municipalities, including five in Blount County, and they were signed into law by the Governor last Thursday. The second bill cured the constitutional defects in the original 2009 bill providing for the municipal option to conduct wet/dry referendums in towns of 1000 or more population.

In a written report to The Blount Countian concerning his hectic week in the Legislature, District 34 Rep. David Standridge provided a summary of the background behind the scrambling needed to clean up a political mess six years in the making. He didn’t call it that, of course. The following insider’s view is taken from his narrative.

Inside: history and perspective

A law passed in 2009 allowed towns of 1000 residents to hold wet/dry elections. Three counties, including Blount, were excluded from that law. More than 30 municipalities that were not excluded subsequently held wet/dry elections.

In 2013, Blount County Circuit Judge Steven King ruled that the exclusion affecting three counties was unconstitutional. After that ruling, five Blount County municipalities held wet/dry referendums. Three voted wet – Oneonta, Blountsville, and Cleveland; and two dry – Locust Fork and Hayden.

Judge King’s ruling was appealed last year by parties opposing alcohol sales, and in February this year, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled the entire 2009 law was unconstitutional, based on three counties being excluded. The ruling in effect negated the results of all 38 municipal wet/dry elections held since the 2009 law was passed.

Last week, two bills were passed to correct the situation created by the court ruling. HB 72 ratified the wet/dry elections that had been already held. HB 73 removed the unconstitutional exclusion excluding three counties from the original 2009 law. Standridge amended HB 72 to make sure both wet and dry elections were upheld. The initial language applied only to towns that had voted wet.

Both bills passed both houses with only token opposition. Both were signed into law by Gov. Bentley.

Standridge said he personally would prefer Blount County stay dry, but his job required him to take a longer view of the consequences for the people of his district and beyond. He said he became aware that if the corrective bills failed, another county-wide wet/dry election would result and that it would likely produce a wet outcome.

“Everyone needs to understand this important fact,” he said.“Counties have very little authority to regulate alcohol or alcohol establishments. Towns and cities do have authority to regulate them. Towns in Blount that have held elections have already set up strict regulations. Also, the county receives about $400,000 a year for being dry, and would lose those funds if the whole county went wet, which would be detrimental to the county budget.”

He indicated those reasons, plus receiving a resolution from the Blount County Commission asking him to support corrective legislation, were important considerations.

Outside: high-stakes derring-do

Meanwhile, Oneonta city manager Ed Lowe had a different – and possibly even more intense – view of the process, since his town has a revenue stake in the outcome.

“After the Supreme Court ruling in February, we heard from practically all the towns affected within a day or two,” Lowe said.“ We called a meeting with the League of Municipalities, and many of them attended.”

Lowe said the group of some 40 to 50 municipalities’ representatives, along with lobbyists representing various trade groups – Walmart, restaurant associations, the grocers’ association, convenience stores, and others – adjourned to the statehouse to begin contacting legislators to explain their point of view. He said members of the Blount County legislative delegation were especially helpful in arranging meetings with individual members and with House and Senate leaders.

“Everyone in the delegation voted for us and were helpful in shepherding this through, but three legislators went way out of their way to help us: Connie Rowe and Shay Shelnutt of our delegation, and Cory Harbison of Cullman County,” Lowe said.

An important benchmark was getting to speak to the House committee on behalf of the bills, then getting them scheduled on the House and Senate calendars to come to the floor for a vote.

“On Thursday of last week, they were on the calendar to come before the House, and we were waiting,” he said.“The bill before us had to do with same-sex marriage and it looked like the debate could go on indefinitely, but they they suspended it and called for a vote on our bills,” he added.

Lowe said afterward, the support delegation met back at the League of Municipalities office, and was discussing what to do next. Lowe told the group he was going to go and stand outside the Governor’s office, in the hope of getting a brief audience to tell the governor the alcohol bills had passed the Legislature, that they were on the way to his desk, and could he please sign them quickly.”

Several of the experienced political operatives told them he had very little chance of succeeding, but he went anyway. He encountered a member of the Governor’s staff in the hallway outside the office, and made his request. He then managed to talk his way out of being escorted from the building by a security guard.

A few minutes later, he said the Governor walked out into the lobby and said “Hello, Ed, what can I do for you?” or words to that effect. Lowe made his pitch, the Governor assented, then was as good as his word, maneuvering the bills through the administrative and legal processes required for approval in about an hour. He signed the two bills around 1:30 p.m. that day.

Lowe said the success was a massive team effort. A Trivial Pursuit note: the two bills preserving the results of municipal elections became the first two Acts of the Legislature in 2015, which they became with the Governor’s signature.

“A lot of the members of the Legislature who have been around awhile have never seen a bill passed in just five legislative days,” Lowe said,“but we did it.”