ATLANTA -- Georgia communities would be able to decide whether stores can sell alcohol on Sundays under legislation headed to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.
The measure sailed through the House by a 127-44 vote Tuesday night as lawmakers moved into the homestretch of the 2011 legislative session. The bill last month passed the state Senate, where it had stalled for five years. The governor has indicated he'd sign it.
The House sponsor, Republican state Rep. Roger Williams, said the legislation is about local control.
"It's about fairness," the Dalton Republican said. "It's not about religion. It's not about drinking."
"It's about letting your people back home express their views."
State Rep. Len Walker, a Loganville Republican, said that by that logic, most everything lawmakers consider should be decided at the ballot box.
"Why don't we extend the sanctity of local control to every measure we consider in this House of Representatives?" Walker said. "It may very well be that we want to extend the sanctity of local control when we don't have the courage to make a decision."
And state Rep. Randy Nix noted the bill was personal to him because his father was an alcoholic and Sunday was the one time he could rely on him not getting drunk.
Nix said the bill will undoubtedly "encourage and promote greater alcohol availability."
The Sunday sales measure has been one of the most closely watched - and heavily lobbied - this legislative session.
The bill had languished for years, facing intense opposition from religious groups and veto threat from Gov. Sonny Perdue, a teetotaler. Deal said while he doesn't drink he believes in democracy. Grocery and convenience stores have pushed hard for the change saying their customers have been clamoring for it.
The bill would allow local governments to decide whether to ask voters if they want to permit Sunday alcohol sales in grocery and conveniences stores from 12:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on Sundays. Voters must approve the change and the Georgia Christian Coalition has pledged to fight the referendums on a local level.
Many restaurants and bars can already sell alcohol by the drink on Sunday.
Assuming Deal signs the bill, Sunday sales measures could be on ballots as soon as this fall.
Georgia is one of just three states that bans Sunday alcohol sale in retail stores. The other two are Connecticut and Indiana.
"I want to go ahead and say I'm glad that Georgia is joining the 21st Century," state Rep. Joe Heckstall, D-East Point, told fellow lawmakers Tuesday.
"We are out of the dark ages."