SC Senate wants to reverse court’s liquor-store decision

South Carolina State House.
South Carolina State House. tglantz@thestate.com

Don’t pop those corks just yet, big-box liquor stores.

The state Senate wants to reverse a South Carolina Supreme Court decision last month that struck down the state’s 80-year-old prohibition on any one company owning more than three liquor stores in the state.

The Senate voted to amend the state budget to require an owner to hand over the equivalent of a year’s total gross sales from one of its existing stores to get a license for a fourth store. The law, which would be in effect for just one year, requires similar payments for each additional license, according to state Sen. Larry Grooms, the bill’s sponsor.

“The fee ... is necessary to fund additional law enforcement, regulatory measures, health care costs and associated impacts on the health, safety and welfare of the state’s residents resulting from the anticipated additional sales of liquor,” the amendment reads.

The measure, which passed the Senate 36-7, would delay the full implementation of the high court’s order for one year, allowing lawmakers time to decide how to tweak the law to stand judicial scrutiny, according to Grooms, R-Berkeley.

“I’m not opposed to considering unlimited licenses,” Grooms told The State. He think it’s “ridiculous” to limit ownership to three stores. “But it’s also ridiculous for the courts to write the laws of the state. This gives the General Assembly the opportunity to address the Supreme Court ruling on a law that has been on the books for 80 years.”

He added that the court’s ruling hurts existing stores whose owners “have cashed in their retirement money to invest in a liquor store based on the current regulatory scheme. Wal-Mart could open up 46 liquor stores within a year.”

But state Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, told The State that placing ownership limits on liquor stores but not other businesses was “arbitrary,” and the amendment requiring the stiff fee was “kind of laughable.”

“Especially in my party,” he said. “Everybody casts themselves as free-market conservatives. Well, they are for free markets in everything but liquor.

“When it comes to liquor laws in South Carolina, nobody ever talks what is best for the consumer,” he said. “It all leads to higher prices. With any other industry, things are done for the benefit of the consumer.”

The suit before the Supreme Court was brought by Potomac, Md.-based Total Wine & More. Efforts to a reach a spokesman for the company were unsuccessful.

However, Gregory predicted a challenge to the amendment if it becomes law. “I would think the plaintiffs would be right back in court,” he said.