A bill under consideration in the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee could make it easier for locals in dry counties to buy alcohol without a long trek to wet cities.
SB 1073, sponsored by Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, would allow any city or town to hold an election that would allow the city to go wet while its county neighbors could remain dry.
If passed by both houses of the General Assembly and signed into law, such a practice would be legal because the bill amends Initiated Act No. 1 and "the law concerning local option elections to sell alcoholic beverages," according to the bill's subtitle.
The city of Barling – in Sebastian County – had previously attempted to make itself wet prior to this bill's introduction, but the ballot initiative, passed overwhelmingly by the city's residents, was shot down in court earlier this year as unconstitutional because not all of the southern portion of Sebastian County (the portion of the county not including Fort Smith) voted in the election.
Mayor Jerry Barling said he is unsure whether his city would again attempt to introduce such a ballot initiative after the legal battle the city has endured.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen," he said.
The mayor said city leaders did not start the petition to change the laws in the community, but the city did favor the petition and the city's Board of Directors could support a petition again, he said.
Files said the Barling issued spurred his interest on the subject.
“What happened in Barling is, I think, a travesty, because the people thought they were making a decision … and then after the election” the results are overturned, he explained.
Files said another motivation is to give citizens of cities or counties more certainty on elections related to changing from dry to wet or wet to dry.
“My opinion is that this is a local control issue. It gives cities equal protection and equal opportunity to vote on this. … We’re dealing with prohibition laws that are protectionist in nature. At the root of them, they don’t reflect the culture we are in today,” Files said.
Erik Danielson, a Logan County attorney who successfully fought to have Barling's ballot initiative ruled invalid, said if SB 1073 passes, it would not change the outcome of the lawsuit he brought against the city.
"I don't see how it could. The lawsuit has reached it's conclusion. It certainly wouldn't be retroactive," Danielson said. "I don't see how any new law could retroactively affect the outcome of the Barling lawsuit."
Mayor Barling said since the law would not change the outcome of the election, the process would have to start over again from scratch for any city residents or officials wanting alcohol sales.
"If they set aside an election, it will have to be a new issue to be brought up," he said. "If the directors decide to do it, then fine. If the individuals who brought it up the first time want to do it, then fine."
Danielson said should the law go into affect, it would be a complex process to get all alcohol-related state laws brought up to date and may not address all of the laws on the books.
"Someone would have to spend a lot of time and craft certain revisions to the law," he said.
But if the law passes and does not have challenges, Danielson said the new law would be a game-changer across Arkansas.
"It would completely change the landscape of alcohol sales in Arkansas," he said. "There are a lot of counties where individual municipalities would try to go wet irregardless of what the others in their county feel about it."
Danielson did not express his personal opinion on whether he was in favor of the legislation or not. But he once again said individuals could not deny the impact such legislation would have on communities.
"I expect it to open the flood gate for local option elections if it were to pass,” Danielson said.