By Walter C. Jones
ATLANTA - A temporary, appointed committee met Wednesday to begin the process of updating the state’s laws dealing with alcohol production, sales and consumption in an effort to simplify commerce, but some in the industry hope it will go further.
The point is to clean up confusing terminology and consolidate some provisions that are scattered throughout various sections of the legal code as a result of years of individual law changes that weren’t necessarily coordinated with one another. For example, the definition for a case of packaged bottles or cans isn’t clearly spelled out, and the required licensing fees are listed in a handful of sections. Growlers, which are 1-liter bottles customers bring from home for filling, aren’t mentioned at all in the law even though Department of Revenue regulates them.
It’s a process lawmakers call housekeeping.
Maxwell, a veteran Republican lawmaker from Dallas, wants the committee to shy away from heavy-duty policymaking. But he knows there are groups that want to make major changes, such as the craft brewing and distilling industry that has recently developed in Georgia.
The micro-distillers and brewers want to be able to sell directly to customers who visit their facilities like vineyards do. Customers are most interested in taking a few bottles or a case home with them just after they have seen the making, met the craftsmen and heard the story of the unique ingredients. The buying urge fades when they have to leave to find a package store down the road.
But Georgia operates under a three-tiered system of distribution that evolved in the aftermath of Prohibition where the producers can only sell to wholesalers who can only sell to retailers.
“Everyone is all torn up about ‘three tiers’ and want to start tearing up stuff and ... changing policy and all,” Maxwell told the assembled lobbyists. “I said we’re not here to do that.”
Many of the lobbyists attending were happy with limiting things to housekeeping, such as Stony McGill of the Georgia Alcohol Dealers Association, the store owners not wanting to compete for direct sales with producers.
“The goal is to wordsmith the code section to make it where everything is consistent,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any change in policy coming from this.”
And Karen Bremer, lobbyist for the Georgia Restaurant Association, says there is plenty of confusion to be resolved. Local governments apply the law differently in different parts of the state, she said, which can complicate matters for restaurant chains.
“I think it makes it harder for people to expand their business,” she said.
But Maxwell recognizes that the micro-brewers and distillers are eager for change. Last year they pushed through a provision that allows them to give visitors a single, half-ounce sample.
It was a victory they hope to build upon in the next legislative session.
Maxwell anticipates holding them off at least to clean up the existing problems in the law.
“I hope we can keep the cats corralled long enough to get that done,” he said.