Drinking in the heart of Dixie

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(This is the fourth and last in a series of columns that trace the history of efforts to regulate the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in Alabama. What follows is an updated and expanded version of an article by the author that first appeared in The Anniston Star back in 2008.)
Let’s catch up. Last week’s column told how a compromise was reached that would allow Tennessee Valley counties to keep a bigger piece of the TVA property tax pie, and would split the rest between the state,  and other dry counties.  Dry counties would also continue to receive a share of liquor revenue collected in the wet counties.
However, the population of Alabama was shifting from rural country sides to towns and cities. Court decisions forced the state to reapportion the legislature and give urban areas representation commensurate with their population.  Growing towns began to need more revenue to pay for services that town-dwellers expected.  One obvious source of the needed money was liquor taxes.  Increasingly towns wanted to sell liquor – for revenue and for the culture and amenities liquor brings. But towns in heavily rural dry counties were unable to overcome anti-liquor votes outside municipal limits.
So dry county towns pressed the legislature for help.
They got it in the form of the “municipal option law.”
The Municipal Option Law was brilliant in its conception and byzantine in its application.
In its first manifestation, the legislation allowed dry county towns with populations of 7,000 or more to hold their own wet dry vote.  If they voted wet, then wet they were.
Then someone asked why 7,000 was a magic number.
The best answer anyone could come up with was that it was less than 10,000 and more than 5,000.  With nothing better than that, the law was soon modified to allow towns of 4,000 or more to hold a similar vote, provided there was already a wet municipality in the county.Are you following me?
Then the law was readjusted to allow smaller towns to vote on the issue—with legislative permission.
And if none of these conditions applied, you could open a golf course. Right.
In 1992, a former legislator from one of those dry counties that had a wet municipality, approached friends on Goat Hill for help.  He was developing a golf course community but was having little luck getting backers because everyone knew that golfers did not want to invest in or play at a country club that did not have a Nineteenth Hole bar. So the developer’s legislative buddies came up with (get ready) “community development districts.”
You didn’t see that one coming, did you?
Or, after all we have been through together,  maybe you did. But back to the point.
According to the plan, if the county was dry (and it was) but there was a wet town in it (there was), then if a developer had a development with 200 or more residential sites, an 18-hole golf course, and a country club with membership requirements, the developer could get it declared a “community development district” and let the liquor flow.
And they say Alabama legislators lack creativity. Alabama legislators also know a potential problem when they see it.
In the midst of all the debate, someone pointed out that not only did the laws and loopholes fly in the face of common sense, they also might deny citizens the right to vote on matters pertaining to their economic wellbeing (not to mention their social activities). So a bill was introduced that would allow cities of any size in dry counties to vote wet or dry.
Representatives from dry counties rose in protest, noting that Alabama had 180 municipalities and predicting that if this was allowed, and if those towns went wet, then there would be no more dry counties in Alabama..
Supporters of the legislation pointed out that “there’s absolutely no such thing as a dry county or city” in the state anyway.  All there was were “a bunch of bootleggers out there getting rich.”
Though the arguments pro and con were ancient, the issue was settled the way that the Alabama legislature settles so many issues — not with a bang but with a whimper. They kicked it back to the people. Let the people decide and blame them if things go bad.
So it came to pass that the dry county prognosticators were right. In the spring of 2016, Lineville, with a population of 2,395, and Ashland, with a population of 2,037, voted to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages.  And with that vote Clay County, the last completely dry county in the state, went wet. Did a new and brighter day dawn?
Or did we slide just a little further down the slope on our way to perdition? The jury is still out on that.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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