Sunday, November 27, 2022

Two bills filed to change happy hour laws, drop bar membership fees in North Carolina

Two bills in the N.C. General Assembly are attempting to reform laws mandated by the ABC Commission and loosen restrictions on bars and restaurants. (Port City Daily/File)

Last week, legislators filed two bills in the N.C. General Assembly’s short session to loosen restrictions when it comes to purchasing liquor and patronizing bars and restaurants across the state. If passed it would dictate changes to how the ABC Commission operates in the state.

North Carolina established its Alcohol Beverage Control Commission in 1937 to control selling, purchasing, manufacturing, consuming, transporting, and possessing liquor and spirits. It regulates beer and wine sales as well through 171 boards in 100 counties.

House Bill 1135 addresses happy hour, which was banned in North Carolina in August 1985, one year after the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was raised to 21.

READ MORE: Bars unite in new association to lobby for modernized alcohol laws in NC

Forty years ago, many objected to specialized hours promoting reduced alcohol prices, saying it would glamorize drinking and lead to increased drunk driving. Today, North Carolina is one of eight states — Massachusetts, Indiana, Alaska, Rhode Island, Vermont, Utah, and Oklahoma — not allowed to host happy hours. Rather, the law mandates alcoholic beverages must remain the same price all day.

It also doesn’t allow restaurants and bars to advertise prices of beverages outside of the establishment, whether on signs or via mass media.

HB 1135 proposes turning over the regulation of happy hours to cities and counties. The bill also includes giving alcohol-serving establishments the go-ahead to:

  • Offer “cents off” coupons
  • Offer a meal and alcoholic beverage at a single total price, whether or not the total price reflects a reduced price of the alcoholic beverage
  • Advertise prices and types of alcoholic beverages outside of the establishment, on signs, on radio and TV and in newspapers and other mass media

Also filed is House Bill 1108, which suggests dropping membership fees associated with private bars. The bill is sponsored by six representatives, including chairman of the House ABC Committee, Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt of Henderson. Currently, North Carolina law mandates bars that bring in 30% or less in food or nonalcoholic sales charge a $1 annual membership fee to customers. Members and their guests must check in each time they patronize the bars.

“There’s no reason people should have to sign in and give their name to come in and have a drink when they can go into a restaurant and don’t have to do the same thing,” Tinyz Tavern owner Jason “Jay” Ruth told Port City Daily two weeks ago.

Ruth is cofounder of the N.C. Bar Owners Association, which hired lobbyist Logan Martin of Skyline Strategies to get both HB 1135 and HB 1108 sponsored and in front of the assembly.

Last year, Martin led the charge on four bills for the bar owners association. One waived ABC renewal and registration fees for 2021 and another reinstated 120 bars’ permits that were canceled without notice.

Martin said the response so far has been positive. “People seem to understand the need for reform within the ABC system,” he said. “Over the past few years we’ve seen a lot of explosive growth.”

Last fall, the general assembly passed an omnibus legislation allowing distilleries to sell bottles from their establishments on Sundays. Martin said the positive change has come with the public’s support and even transplants who have “helped really move the needle.”

“I do think it’s more discussed than it was in years past,” he said.

Rep. Jon Hardister of Guilford — the Majority Whip and vice chair of the House ABC Committee — filed both bills. He told Yes! Weekly in Greensboro the membership fees require “unnecessary paperwork for small businesses.” Bars must keep detailed records on site about everyone who has a membership.

“It does not serve a public good and it is an undue burden on bar owners,” Hardister told Yes!. “I am hopeful that we can repeal this requirement and take another step towards modernizing our ABC laws.” 

The Membership Bill has passed its first reading and will move to the House ABC Committee, and upon passing will then move on to economic and finance before heading to Rules, Calendar and Operations Committee.

The Happy Hour Bill has yet to have its first reading.

Martin said he is hopeful the Membership Bill is folded into a larger alcohol omnibus, while the Happy Hour Bill he expects won’t have movement until next year.

Happy Hour Bill

The Membership Bill

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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