Law passes to sell liquor in county, but affects only Picayune

Published 11:06 pm Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In the near future, having a gin and tonic with your dinner may be easier than driving to Louisiana for the residents of Pearl River County with the passage on Tuesday of Legislative Bill 1441.

That bill, in yet another re-designed form, passed 31-11 in the Senate, and in essence defines the city of Picayune as a “qualified resort area,” thus opening the door for the city to add a referendum concerning the sale of liquor in area restaurants to its June mayoral election.

Before the referendum can be added, a petition requesting it must be circulated and 20 percent of registered voters within Picayune city limits must sign the petition. The petition is then registered and then once the signatures are verified, a vote must be held within 30 days, which means the vote could actually come before or some time after the upcoming municipal elections.

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The bill had caused an uproar last month during a board of supervisors meeting when members of the Citizens Action Team appeared before the board and asked the supervisors to send a letter to the legislature voicing disapproval of the bill.

After a heated and contentious discussion in which illicit sex, racism, and religion were all mentioned, and accusations alluded to the possibility of the supervisors asking for the county to be included, supervisors Anthony Hales, District 1 and Patrick Lee, District 4, voted against sending the letter, while supervisors Charles Culpepper, District 2, Hudson Holliday, District 3, and Sandy Smith, District 5, voted to send the letter.

Hales insisted the group contact the politicians directly responsible for the bill for answers, while pointing out that no one on the board had asked to be included in the bill. Holliday later said he voted for the measure because the way it was written — to include exclusive areas such as Hide-Away-Lake, Hillcrest, and Millbrook as qualified resort areas — as discriminatory, noting that why would “one small portion be allowed to have something someone else can not.”

State Rep. Mark Formby of Picayune said the bill, as written, will allow a referendum within city limits only on whether or not to allow the sale of liquor in any restaurant, hotel and motel in which 25 percent of its revenue is from the sale of food for on site consumption.

“It would declare the city of Picayune as a ‘resort area’ for the purpose of selling alcoholic beverages,” said Formby, who said he used the phrase resort area in quotations marks.

Formby said that the original amendment to the bill had listed three subdivisions in the county that could qualify as resort areas, but that the wording had been changed to just include Picayune as the “only way they thought it would pass.”

He said he had opposed the original language of the bill that basically by-passed the residents’ rights to vote on the issue and is more comfortable with the way the bill is now written. “I feel better about giving the people the right to vote on it,” said Formby. “I was opposed to the original language because it basically took the right of people to vote.”

Citizens Action Team member and associate director of the Pearl River Baptist Association, Danny Nance, said he was glad the original version of the amendment to the bill was changed, but that he was still not happy with its passing, pointing out that the residents of the county had voted just a couple of years ago to stay a dry county. “On a personal level, what saddens me most is that it is not just an alcohol issue,” said Nance. “It is that it circumvented the will of the people.”

When the organization attended the board meeting, its members were under the impression that the bill would affect the entire county, he said. Nance said that they now would need to re-group and form a new strategy.

“We had been informed of a different version (of the bill) that would have affected the entire county,” said Nance. “We will, of course, have to meet and discuss it, but we will probably work with our churches and talk to the pastors in the area and try to have a voice in the matter.”

As for, Hales, the news that the bill had passed was not alarming. “Personally, I do not have feelings about it one way or another,” he said. “But with it being in that format, it gives the citizens the opportunity to decide if they want to have this.”

Hales said that he was not so sure that if the referendum passes that the county would see any big economic boom. “It is hard to say,” he said. “There may be a slight increase in sales tax revenue and it may help pull in some businesses that may or may not locate here because of the restrictions of alcohol, but I don’t anticipate any big windfalls if it passes.”

District 3 supervisor Hudson Holliday echoed Hales, saying that he had not read the bill and that too many exaggerations had circulated in recent weeks concerning it. “We live in a democracy and people will have the opportunity to voice their opinion,” he said.

Economically Holliday, said he believes that if the city approves the referendum, the county could come out ahead. “In the long run, I believe it will have a positive effect and will bring in more revenue,” adding “you can’t legislate morality.”

Formby, much like Hales, said that he was not so sure the passage of the referendum, if it makes the June election, would help out Picayune economically. “There is some truth to the fact that it might bring better restaurants,” said Formby. “But we have three towns within 20 miles of Picayune (that allow liquor to be sold) and they haven’t seen a big economic boom. As the saying goes, the truth will be in the pudding.”

For the most part, some people around Picayune were pleased with the passage of the bill. Connie Bourgault, who works in Picayune, said she was happy to hear that area restaurants might be able to soon sell a drink with dinner. “I’m hoping it will bring more business to the area,” she said. “Let’s keep our dollars in Picayune.”

Another woman, who asked her name not be used, said she too was optimistic about the news. Noting that she and her husband had to drive to Slidell for a drink with their dinner, the woman said, “I think they should (pass the referendum) because everyone is going to Louisiana.” “All of our money is going to Louisiana and we need to keep it here.”

Calls to supervisor Patrick Lee werenot returned and supervisor Charles Culpepper could not be reached for comment. Supervisor Sandy Kane Smith tried to return calls but was unable to be connected.