Liquor Bill Hearing Postponed, Gains Local Support

March 5, 2003
Posted at: 12:38 p.m. CST
Updated at: 11:00 p.m. CST

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- A hearing on whether HB 1728, the local option bill that would make a liquor by the drink vote in Craighead County an easier proposition was delayed by another week after an amendment to the bill was offered.

Rep. Betty Pickett of Conway, the bills chief sponsor, requested a delay after language that would require restaurants that serve alcohol by the drink to maintain food sale levels of 60% was introduced. With the amendment came to co-sponsorship of Reps. Paul Bookout and Chris Thyer, both of Jonesboro.

Bookout had previously been non-committal on the local option bill, saying that he would consider the bill language closely before announcing support for the measure.

The addition of Bookout and Thyer brings the number of co-sponsors to four. Also co-sponsoring the legislation are Reps. Jay Bradford of Pine Bluff and Jodie Mahoney of El Dorado.

"What (Rep. Bookout) and I did was we went to the sponsor and asked her to change the definition of a restaurant to require 60 percent of their sales be derived from food sales in exchange for us agreeing to co-sponsor the bill," Thyer said.

One of the main opponents to the, North Main Baptist Church minister Tommy Stacey, indicated his displeasure with the Bookout's decision to support the local option bill, a bill that proponents say gives residents the right to vote on the controversial issue.

"I am very suprised with (Rep. Bookout) to be quite honest," Stacey said. "We still haven't ruled (him) out.

"(Bookout) is a dear fellow. He is a dear brother in the Lord. We're still praying (for him). We still believe (Bookout) has an opportunity to do the right thing, and we think he will do it," Satcey added.

"Well I'm pleased that Paul Bookout and Chris Thyer came out openly to co-sponsor the bill," said Carroll Caldwell, the Jonesboro representative of Citizens for a Progressive Arkansas, the major supporters of the legislation. "I think that goes to show you how many people are really for this bill. Everybody wants the right to vote whether you are for it or against it. I'm very pleased that they are fighting for the right for us to vote on this issue."

Both Reps. Bookout and Pickett were unavailable for comment on Wednesday.

The local option bill's language would allow dry counties, and first-class 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 bill specifically targets the counties of Craighead and Faulkner, and the cities of Jonesboro or Conway.

The amendment introduced further defines restaurants beyond the current law. Arkansas Code Annotated 3-9-202 currently defines restaurants as places that must seat fifty people, be open five days per week, and serve at least one meal per day. The amendment would require restaurants that serve liquor by the drink to maintain gross food receipts of at least 60%. In addition, according to the amendment, restaurants would have to serve "full and complete meals in a fully equipped and sanitary kitchen," and serves alcohol "in conjunction with meals."

Proponents of the bill say that this language will make the bill easier to support in the legislature, and that it takes away one of the chief arguments of the opposition.

"We are adding the terminology that all restaurants must have 60% of their sales in food," Caldwelll said. "The reason for this is because it takes out a major arguing point with the opposition. They can no longer say this bill will allow for bars."

Stacey countered by asking: "Who will monitor those restaurants to make sure they serve exactly 60% in food and 40% in liquor?"

One of the main arguments by opponents to HB 1728 is that it would allow bars masquerading as eating establishments to flourish in Craighead County.

"This is not about having a glass of wine with pasta in an upscale restaurant," said Ken Stallings, pastor of the Forest Home Church of the Nazarene, as part of a Feb. 18 protest in front of the Craighead County Courthouse. "It is about bars. Bars attached to restaurants and hotels. Perhaps some nice restaurants and hotels, but bars nonetheless. Anyone will be able to drink as much as they want without so much as touching a bite of food."