RICHMOND—Virginia is close to getting wetter.
The House of Delegates voted 67–30 on Wednesday for a bill that would allow the sale of liquor by the drink in the remaining 31 “dry” or “partially dry” counties by July 2020 unless they hold a local referendum and win a majority of the vote to remain dry.
Legislators often bring bills before the General Assembly on behalf of businesses seeking exemptions to serve liquor by the drink in areas that are dry. Del. Chris Hurst, D–Blacksburg, patroned House Bill 2634, which he viewed as a solution to a “systemic problem” that frustrates lawmakers dealing with these bills.
Localities presently have the option to hold referendums to allow liquor by the drink sales. Referendums can be limited to magisterial districts within a county, so the result has led to counties where businesses in certain areas are allowed to sell mixed drinks while others are not.
The vote on Wednesday came after a spirited debate the day before.
Del. Tommy Wright, R–Lunenberg, called it a “referendum in reverse.” He expressed concern that localities would have a hard time reverting back to dry. He worried about money pouring in to defeat ballot measures.
“It’s going to be hard for small localities to fight large interests,” he said. He appealed to “those of you in the body who like the little man and don’t like the heavy hand of government reaching out and telling you what to do.”
It’s hard to say how many localities choose to remain dry rather than not go through the process of allowing mixed drink sales. Hurst said the process to get a referendum on the ballot can be tedious.
Hurst said no particular locality is driving this legislation, but it’s an issue that businesses and local officials have raised with him before. And since the bill was filed, he’s heard from more local leaders who told him they are appreciative that he’s trying to “settle this debate once and for all.”
Del. Bobby Orrock, R–Caroline, said the state government is forcing a policy on local governments they have opted not to implement so far.
“It’s not our place in the state government to tell local governments what they have to do in this regard,” Orrock said.
Del. David Bulova, D–Fairfax, spoke in favor of the bill, arguing the “heavy hand of government” is telling a small business it can’t sell liquor by the drink unless it gets an affirmative resolution.
“This a bill for freedom,” declared Bulova, drawing cheers and applause on both sides of the aisle.
The floor exchange proved enough to change the mind of Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R–Shenandoah. Originally a co-patron of the bill, he asked to have his name removed from the legislation and apologized to Hurst.
“My intentions certainly were centered around the work we do here and the frustration of having to take up these bills over and over again,” Gilbert said. “And my thoughts had not turned to apparently the numerous localities that have this situation and have maintained it in their own choosing.”
Gilbert against the bill.
The floor debate was mild compared to past discussions in the General Assembly about selling mixed drinks.
When Virginia ended Prohibition in 1934, restaurants and retail stores could once again sell beer and wine. State-controlled stores managed by what is today called the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority handled the limited sales of distilled spirits by the bottle.
The movement to allow restaurants to serve mixed drinks reached its high point in 1968, when the General Assembly considered what became known as “the whiskey bill.”
Hundreds of people arrived at the state capital to cheer or decry the proposed legislation that would give localities the option of deciding, by referendum, whether its bars and restaurants should be allowed to sell mixed drinks.
Lawmakers didn’t go with the statewide referendum. Rather, they gave each city and county the option to let their own voters decide.
Currently, all 38 cities and 64 of the 95 counties in Virginia allow liquor by the drink. Of the remaining 31 counties, only nine completely prohibit liquor by the drink, most of them in Southwest Virginia, including Bland, Buchanan, Craig, Grayson, Highland, Lee, Patrick and Russell counties.