Liquor By The Drink Bill Introduced

February 24, 2003
Posted at: 5:07 p.m. CST

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- After almost two weeks of speculation and local protest, a bill that could make it easier for a vote on liquor-by-the-drink sales in Craighead County was filed in the General Assembly on Monday.

The bill, HB 1278, was introduced by Rep. Betty Pickett of Conway. It was co-sponsored by Rep. Jodie Mahony of El Dorado and Rep. Jay Bradford of Pine Bluff. The bill was put together by a group calling themselves Citizens for a Progressive Arkansas, headed by Greg Nabholz of Conway.

The bill would allow dry counties, and certain cities within the borders of a dry county to vote on liquor by the drink measures that would limit sales to hotels, restaurants, or convention centers. The language of the bill, specifically its population ranges, targets the counties of Craighead and Faulkner, and the cities of Jonesboro or Conway.

Under current law, county residents wishing to place a liquor issue on the ballot in a dry county would have to secure signatures totaling at least 38% of the registered voters in that county. HB 1728 would keep the 38% option, but would also allow the county quorum court, or city council, to bring a vote by a simple majority.

According to numbers provided by Craighead County Clerk's office, there are approximately 48,000 registered voters in the county. Of those, 21,512 voters participated in the November 2002 General Election. Under the 38% guideline, approximately 18,240 signatures would be needed for a county-wide vote.

Under Arkansas Code Annotated 14-14-107 and 14-14-914, only a 15% threshold exists for petitions on basic county matters. The 15% would be based on the number of voters participating in the most recent election for County Clerk. Some 21,202 participated in the vote for County Clerk in Craighead County in 2002.

Opponents of the bill held a protest on the steps of the Craighead County Courthouse on February 18.

Around 40 people participated in the afternoon protest. One of the participants was Craighead County Judge Dale Haas. Haas, a Democrat, expressed his opposition to the proposal, saying that "every flood has started with a rain drop."

"This is not a Democrat issue, or a Republican issue," Haas said. "This is a moral issue."

The Central Committee of the Craighead County Democratic Party voted 13-3 to support the bill, and encourage all other county Democrats to support it. Both members of the legislature from Craighead County, Rep. Paul Bookout, and Sen. Jerry Bookout, are Democrats.

Also voicing their opposition on February 18 were Sheriff Jack McCann and local Pastor Ken Stallings, who said that the status quo, in terms of how to get the issue in front of the voters, should remain.

"They're welcome to vote, but let's leave the procedure the way it is," Stallings said. "Let it come from the grassroots. Let it come from the people."

On February 19, a second local group, the Downtown Jonesboro Association, voted unanimously to support the bill.

"We're going to ask for the right to vote," president Betty Shaw said. "We're going to support the bill."

The bill has been fast-tracked and placed on the agenda for the House Rules Committee on February 26. Committee member Rep. Denny Sumpter of West Memphis, an alumnus of Arkansas State University, said on February 19 that he will vote in favor of the bill. Rep. Gary Biggs of Paragould, also a member of the Rules Committee, told KAIT on February 21 that he would most likely oppose the bill, citing input from his constituency.