BONIFAY — Liquor laws could get looser in several rural Panhandle counties.
The Florida Legislature passed a bill last week (HB 347) that could help all restaurants sell liquor, wine and beer in counties where that is not currently allowed, including Calhoun, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties.
The bill would affect sales of “by the drink” alcohol, which are beverages consumed where they’re purchased, such as restaurants and bars.
But, even if the bill is signed by the governor, which appears likely —it cleared the House 111-4 and the Senate 36-0 —it doesn’t automatically legalize “by the drink” sales throughout the counties.
The measure would fall back into the hands of local voters, who would have an easier time getting it on the ballot.
Calhoun, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington currently do not sell liquor by the drink.
State Rep. Marti Coley, a Marianna Republican, said twice in recent years there has been an effort to get the issue on the ballot, but it failed.
The Legislature’s response was to water down the process. Under current state law, to get an initial election on the sale of alcohol in a county, an application must be presented to the county commission with 25 percent of registered voters’ signatures.
If that initial election allows alcohol to be sold only in package stores, then the county residents must again round up 25 percent of voters’ signatures to put it back on the ballot for “by the drink” sales in restaurants. That’s the issue in Jackson County.
The recently passed bill would require only one-tenth of voters’ signatures, or a majority vote by the county commission.
That would put the issue on the ballot to legalize “by the drink” sales of beer, wine and liquor containing more than 6.243 percent alcohol by volume.
Jackson County Commissioner Willie Spires said about five of the 11 municipalities allow restaurants to serve beer. He said some businesses just outside the city limits feel it’s unfair because their competition can serve alcohol while they can’t.
“People are optimistic that now they can get it on the ballot and get it passed,” he said.
Spires can be counted among those who wouldn’t mind seeing alcohol served in restaurants throughout the county.
“I see it as a good thing,” he said. “I think living in a small rural area such as Jackson County that we miss out on a lot of tax [revenue] that could be generated; a lot of people in our area go to Panama City or Dothan (Ala.) or Tallahassee.”
Spires said allowing alcohol to be served in restaurants countywide could translate into economic development, ushering more restaurants like Red Lobster or Applebee’s.
Spires said he thought Jackson County residents would like to see the law changed, too. The county has 28,773 registered voters and would need 2,878 signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
Calhoun County has 8,276 registered voters and would need 827 signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
Holmes County has 11,375 registered voters and would need 1,138 signatures.
Liberty County has 4,403 registered voters and would need 441 signatures.
Washington County has 14,665 voters so would need 1,467 signatures.
Or the county commissions, through a majority vote, could put the measure in the voters’ hands.
Coley said she wasn’t necessarily opposed to the policy, but she voted against it because it was tacked onto the bill late in the process as an amendment.
“The substance of the amendment was never heard in committee and only affects three counties,” she said in a statement. “Since it was added on the House floor, there was not time to contact the communities that will be impacted.”
Coley said the legislation should have been a stand-alone bill, so it would have had adequate time to be debated and those impacted could offer input.
She concluded, “However, in the end, the citizens still have the final decision.”
Coley was able to round up two of her Panhandle colleagues — state Reps. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, and Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City — to vote against the bill, which passed by a landslide. State Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, also voted against it.
Patronis took the same view as Coley.
“Hey, I like live and let live, and I think all that’s fine,” he said of liquor laws, “but there’s a process in place and those people in Jackson County, if they wanted it, they would have asked their legislator to file a bill and go through the normal vetting process.”
Patronis is co-owner of Capt. Anderson’s, which serves beer, wine and mixed drinks. His problem with the amendment was that it was filed on the House floor 24 hours before it was voted on.
Rep. Ronald "Doc" Renuart, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, who sponsored the bill, also filed the amendment.
“A lot of people didn’t know about it,” Patronis said.