Liquor bill beats crossover deadline

ATLANTA, Ga. -- In a battle of morality versus modernism, the state Senate debated whether to sell alcohol at grocery and liquor stores on Sundays for nearly three hours before approving a proposal that would let local governments put the issue to voters.

The Senate voted 32-22 in favor of the measure, which languished in the rules committee for weeks before finally making it to the floor on Wednesday -- the crossover day deadline by which bills must pass at least one legislative chamber to have a shot at becoming law.

Lawmakers faced a marathon session with more than 80 other bills before the Senate and the House.

Supporters have pushed for years to OK Sunday sales in Georgia, one of just three states that ban stores from selling alcohol on the Sabbath. The effort has faced fierce resistance from religious groups and a veto threat from former Gov. Sonny Perdue. New Gov. Nathan Deal has said he supports Sunday sales as long as communities can decide whether to allow them.

On Wednesday, the impassioned arguments over the issue ranged from local control for Georgia communities to preserving the Sabbath and saving lives.

"This is not an easy day," said Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who voted against the measure. "There are core principles that are really at war with each other in this legislation."

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, was among several senators who supported a local vote despite opposing Sunday alcohol sales.

"If it passes and it was on the ballot in Chickamauga ... I would vote against it," Mullis said. "But I am for local control. I can't keep saying that if I don't support this bill. The best defense is to have a good offense. The only way we do that in rural Georgia is to have local control."

Religious groups pressured lawmakers to kill the bill in the General Assembly before it hit Georgia communities. Georgia Christian Coalition President Jerry Luquire said the fight now shifts to about 320 counties and municipalities across the state.

"I just think the lobbyists had more money than we had," Luquire said after the vote. "They were using the local control as a smokescreen to do what they were being told to do. We did not have that kind of influence. Maybe we will at the local level."

As senators clashed in the chamber, the hallway outside the Senate was clogged with lobbyists watching the debate on a television feed.

The House has its own Sunday sales measure, which could make it to a vote soon.

Lawmakers were scrambling to complete their work on dozens of other bills.

In the House, lawmakers voted 153-21 to approve a bill that would authorize the secretary of state to set the date for Georgia's presidential primary before the second Tuesday in June.

Sponsor Mark Hamilton, a Republican representative from Cumming, said it provides the state flexibility. But Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield complained that under the measure lawmakers "are giving up control" to the executive branch.

The House also voted to extend a tax break that benefits Savannah-based Gulfstream Aerospace. A fiscal note attached to the bill says it will cost the state $4.2 million in lost tax revenue in 2012. It extends until 2013 the tax break on the sale of aircraft parts repaired or maintained in Georgia. It had been set to expire this year.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican, said the tax break isn't for Gulfstream but for those doing business with the jet maker. He said it also benefits several other Georgia companies and protects jobs in Augusta, Savannah and Columbus.

The measure passed 128-42.

The House is also set to take up a bill that would create a sentencing reform commission, aimed at helping to slash the state's soaring prison costs by studying alternative punishments for some non-violent offenders offenders in hopes of slashing the state's soaring prison costs.