Resort liquor bill stalls as House sends it back to conference

Published 1:03 am Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Mississippi House on Friday slowed the momentum of a bill that involves establishing resort areas where wine and liquor could be sold, including ones in Pearl River County.

The bill is a plan to let restaurants sell wine and liquor in a few resort areas that are now either alcohol-free or that allow nothing stronger than beer. The areas are in Tishomingo County in the north, in the city of Flowood and part of the city of Pearl in central Mississippi’s Rankin County and in Pearl River County in the south.

The resort liquor bill had been moving through the House and Senate in tandem with a bill to allow the City of Jackson to raise taxes, if voters approved, leading some lawmakers in both chambers to angrily accuse others of cutting behind-the-scenes deals that would violate their oath of office. Legislators swear not to trade their vote for one issue in exchange for a colleague’s vote for another.

Rep. Deryk Parker, D-Lucedale, said he believes drinking alcohol is morally wrong, but that’s not the only reason he opposes the expansion of liquor sales in resorts. He said big money has too much influence on the legislative process.

“I think the thing that upsets me the most about this … just because you get some developers with a lot of resources that can hire them some lobbyists that can come up here and walk the halls and wine and dine some legislators, we get this kind of mess to come out,” Parker said during the House debate Friday.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said in an interview after the debate that some companies won’t sink big money into a development unless they’ll be allowed to sell liquor at clubs or restaurants.

“I don’t drink,” said Watson, a church deacon. “But all people are not like me.”

Opponents said the liquor bill is unfair because local residents in most of the proposed resort areas would not get to vote on whether to legalize the sale of whiskey, scotch and other hard drinks.

Picayune Representative Mark Formby said if the bill included a requirement for a special referendum in Pearl River County that would give the bill a better chance of passing.

“I really think if there was a county wide vote required it would pass the bill,” Formby said.

Currently there would be no referendum in a section of Pearl near the Mississippi Braves minor-league baseball park and the Bass Pro Shop. There also would be no referendum in part of Tishomingo County or in some subdivisions the bill mentions in Pearl River County. However, the bill says residents in the city of Flowood would get to vote on the liquor sales.

Formby said he has heard the proposed resort areas in Pearl River County include Hide-A-Way Lake, an area in Hillsdale and possibly another area in Heritage Oaks. Also, if the lake project in Millard is constructed then that area would also qualify as a resort area. Current wording of the bill states any residential area built around or near a lake, club or golf course could be deemed a resort area.

Under the current amendment to the bill there could be thousands of new resorts in Mississippi, Formby said. For the most part those resorts would be exclusive, leaving out the majority of the public.

Formby said the original bill came to the House of Representatives with only Tishomingo County listed. He said when it went to the Senate, Pearl River County Sen. Sid Albritton amended the bill to add the areas in Pearl River County. Albritton and Sen. Ezell Lee, also of Pearl River County, did not return numerous phone calls from the Picayune Item, made from Monday though Friday, about the topic.

According to senate vote records kept at http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/2009/pdf/history/HB/HB1441.xml Albritton voted for the amended bill while Lee voted against it. Formby said the vote taken in the House Friday sent the bill back to conference with a committee of three representatives and three senators. House leaders warned that the move could kill the bill because it could get bogged down.

Several lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Ray Rogers of Pearl, said local people near all the resort areas should get a voice.

“Pearl and Flowood are sister cities in Rankin County,” Rogers said. “We’re joined at the hip for 13 miles running east and west. They’re going to get a chance to vote on their whiskey and the Pearl people are not going to get a chance to vote on theirs.”

Rogers said people in Rankin County have voted against liquor eight times in the past 35 years, and some of the strongest opposition has come from the city of Pearl.

The bill is House Bill 1441.