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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Updates to ABC laws gain bipartisan support, await Gov. Cooper’s signature

ABC laws could see some changes with HB768 and SB470 passing and awaiting Gov. Cooper’s signature. (Port City Daily/File)

One antiquated ABC law is a step closer to being a thing of the past in North Carolina.

If signed by Gov. Roy Cooper, HB 768, would do away with private bars requiring memberships in North Carolina. The law went into effect in the ‘70s for bars only — not restaurants, not wineries, not distilleries, not breweries. 

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

“You can go to Chili’s and drink, but if you come to my bar, you have to put down your home address and date of birth, and I have to see your license,” said NC Bar Owners Association founder Jason “Jay” Ruth, owner of Tinyz Tavern in Wilmington. 

Like drinking establishments statewide that don’t serve food — or make less than 30% profit in food and nonalcoholic beverage sales — Tinyz has to dole out $1 memberships to its clientele, who also must sign in each time they visit. 

“I’ve already heard from multiple bar owners just this evening that they intend to cancel orders for membership cards that tally more than $3,000 per bar,” Logan Martin of Skyline Strategies said Thursday.

Martin was hired as a lobbyist for NCBOA a few months ago. He pushed two separate bills last month in the short session to modernize N.C.’s alcohol laws, though they never gained traction out of the committees. However, last year, he successfully passed four 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 during Covid.

HB 768 received 95% bipartisan support in both chambers.

“This will be a huge driver for tourism along our coast and in the mountains as bars will no longer be requiring people from out of state to become a member just to enjoy a cocktail,” Martin said.

Ruth agreed but also said residents moving from other areas aren’t used to the restrictions placed on alcohol-buying in general. “This state has now become transitory,” he said. “You’ve got people moving here from the Midwest and Northeast, the West. And they’re coming from states that have modernized liquor laws.”

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.

Membership records are required by current law to be kept on site at private bars, plus a ledger to be signed nightly by patrons. If HB 768 passes, bar owners won’t be encumbered with extra paperwork and files that Ruth calls “ridiculous,” at the least.

“I mean, it was just so invasive,” he added. “If this passes, we have to shred all of these documents — of people’s personal information.”

HB 768 also includes allowing community colleges that host professional sporting events to sell alcohol. Plus, it would make it easier for bar owners that sell their establishments to transfer permits to the new owner in a 60-day window.

Another bill could loosen some alcohol provisions. Also awaiting Cooper’s signature is SB 470, which would allow counties and cities to enact social districts. These are areas where people can drink indoors or outdoors in spaces not normally permitted.

Last year, when the state began floating the idea, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and city staff was researching information for potentially including one downtown.

“I’ve seen the concept in other communities like in Savannah,” Saffo said last fall, “and I think it’s worked wonderfully. I don’t think it’s a bad idea. In fact, I would support it if I think we could enforce it and we could do a good job with it.”

Martin attributes the support of both bills across the aisle to the boost of attention received in the media as of late that highlight the state’s outdated regulations.

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

“From there, legislators heard from constituents in their districts that owned private bars and were able to directly explain why the North Carolina Bar Owners Association was pushing for these changes,” Martin said. 

He has another bill in the works, which would be a part of a larger omnibus. It’s likely to come up in the assembly’s long session by early winter and will tackle lifting happy hour regulations.

“But that has a lot more moving parts,” Ruth said.

For now, Martin confirmed he is “under the impression” — especially given the amount of bipartisan support — that the governor will move forward rather than veto HB 768 and SB 470.

If passed, it will impact thousands of bars across North Carolina immediately.

Port City Daily reached out to the governor’s office for comment but didn’t receive a response by press.

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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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