Bars unite in new association to push for modernized North Carolina liquor laws

A group of bar owners have formed an association and hired a lobbyist who hopes to push bills through the short session of the North Carolina General Assembly on May 26. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver

An organization hopes to make fundamental changes in Raleigh when it comes to bar operations across the state.

The North Carolina Bar Owners Association, a nonprofit founded a year ago, is working to convince lawmakers to introduce at least two bills in the short session of the North Carolina General Assembly that would alter the operation of the state-run ABC commission.

North Carolina is one of 17 states that allows the government complete control over the sale, purchase, manufacture, consumption, transportation, and possession of alcohol and spirits. It also regulates beer and wine sales. The Liquor Control Commission, founded in 1937 after Prohibition, has 171 councils in 100 counties.

“There is no uniform policy across the state when it comes to these tips,” said NCBOA founding member Jay Ruth, owner of Tinyz Tavern in Wilmington. “Each department is different. Each of the state licensees orders differently, they get different products. »

He calls many of the laws the CBA institutes outdated, even “draconian.”

The association’s lobbyist, Logan Martin of Skyline Strategies argued a handful of questions ahead of the short assembly session, which begins May 26. The first is the removal of memberships. North Carolina law requires bars that bring in 30% or less of food or non-alcoholic sales to charge patrons an annual $1 membership fee.

“There’s no reason people have to register and give their name to come in and have a drink when they can walk into a restaurant and don’t have to do the same thing,” Ruth said. .

NCBOA also hopes to improve price regulation. For example, happy hour is illegal in the state of North Carolina because alcoholic beverages sold in restaurants and bars must remain the same price all day.

Advertising regulations are also strict, with specialty drinks only being able to be promoted inside establishments.

Martin has successfully pushed through 150 pieces of legislation for his clients, including full bills, line items, pilot projects, minor reforms and “technical fixes”, he confirmed.

“I often see my profession as having three main parts: solving problems, building bridges and serving as a guide,” Martin said. “Most clients need contact with legislators, community leaders, or business groups to help resolve these issues.”

Last August, Martin led the charge on four bills for the Bar Owners Association. One waived ABC renewal and listing fees for 2021 and another reinstated 120-bar licenses that were canceled without notice.

“We are the ones who put this information in the hands of the general assembly and [Rep. Tim] Moffitt who introduced these bills,” Ruth said. “It was a big help during this period.”

Ruth said her two bars on Gordon Road and 17th Street had been closed for more than a year due to pandemic-related emergency orders. Nine months later, in December 2020, the governor signed an executive order authorizing the take-out sale of alcoholic beverages. For many, it was too little, too late.

“Governor Cooper unfairly kept us closed and allowed all other licensed liquor establishments to open in the state,” Ruth said.

Ruth talks about breweries, wineries and distilleries. They continued to operate thanks to the lobbying efforts of organizations, such as the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association, according to the bar owner.

“We had no representation,” Ruth said, “they basically left us in the wind.”

Ruth and other bar owners filed a lawsuit in December 2020 against Cooper for violating their constitutional rights to stay open.

Although the lawsuit is not associated with the NCBOA, it was the push bar owners needed to come together to have their voices heard. In addition to hiring a lobbyist, the NCBOA met with ABC Commission officials.

They visited the ABC warehouse in Raleigh and met with Chairman Hank Bauer, whom Cooper appointed in December 2021 to replace AD ​​”Zander” Guy, the former mayor of Surf City.

During the tour, Ruth learned that the commission “is now doing in a month what it did commercially all year in 1984 when it first opened,” he detailed.

However, the warehouse, built in the early 1980s, is “woefully understaffed and way too small”, he said. It can only accept a limited number of deliveries, often preventing bars from getting products in a timely manner, or at all in some cases.

Covid has exacerbated supply chain issues and there has been a lack of drivers to transport orders to all state councils, Ruth added.

ABC licensees are required to purchase liquor only from licensed North Carolina wholesalers or liquor only through its designated ABC store.

“A lot of the product that we can’t get in North Carolina is in the privatized states, like South Carolina, Florida, Georgia,” Ruth added.

Many concerns of the bar are not the first to be heard by the general assembly.

Omnibus liquor reform legislation was passed last October allowing distilleries to sell bottles from their establishments on Sundays (it did not change the hours of ABC stores, which remain closed on Sundays).

Republican Rep. Moffitt of Hendersonville, who chairs the House ABC Committee, has also expressed interest in modernizing the system, according to North Carolina. Over the years, others have argued for privatization, including former Democratic governors Beverly Perdue and Republican Pat McCrory.

A 2019 tax report that was presented to the North Carolina General Assembly in 2019 during an attempt at liquor reform legislation suggested that “state and local revenues from the sale of alcohol would rise to about $715 million within a few years.” North Carolina business reported.

For fiscal year 2021, the commission injected $616 million into the councils. County-city distributions were $123,750,354, with state taxes contributing $438 million. The rest of the money went to local alcohol education and treatment programs, rehabilitation services, and the Department of Health and Human Services, with $20 million to fund warehouse operations and distribution center.

NCBOA is advocating for a new, more efficient facility for the ABC to run its operations. “We will support any bill and legislative committees that allow [the commission] to build a new building,” Ruth said.

The NCBOA launched a PAC and an IE SuperPAC, both nonpartisan, to support its efforts. The NCBOA PAC will support applicants who align with the goals of the NCBOA. The other, called “Friends of the Hospitality Industry SuperPac”, will fund ways for NCBOA to get its message across and educate the public, through radio spots, television commercials, digital or print media.

Ruth was downtown distributing literature to businesses on Wednesday to help educate and build their statewide membership. There are currently 168, with six members in New Hanover and two in Brunswick. Ruth said last week that the NCBOA has expanded to include restaurants and other outlets that have liquor licenses and would benefit from her advocacy.

“A lot of people in the state don’t understand how this system works,” Ruth said.

“I’m pretty confident we’ll see continued progress on liquor modernization and reform in the short session ahead,” Martin added. “It will include reforms around licensing, taxation of ready-to-drink products, how alcohol can be priced/advertised by licensees, and increased access to product inventory.”

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