A combination of lax land-use policies and policing has combined with a mushrooming USC student population to transform Columbia’s Five Points shopping village into a bar district that wakes up after dark and spills hordes of drunken revelers into the nearby neighborhoods in the wee hours of the morning.
But after an aggressive campaign by the politically and legally savvy residents of those neighborhoods, a statewide solution is about to be imposed on this local problem.
Unfortunately, that solution threatens to do significant damage to well-established businesses throughout the state — and has the potential to harm the tourism industry that is the lifeblood of Charleston and other communities.
At the urging of Gov. Henry McMaster, the state Revenue Department announced that it is going to start enforcing a provision in the state constitution that requires businesses that sell liquor to “engage primarily and substantially in the preparation and serving of meals or furnishing of lodging.”
Although “primarily and substantially” isn’t defined, it’s hard to see how bars could continue to operate if they aren’t attached to restaurants or hotels.
We can’t fault the Revenue Department for deciding to make businesses comply with the state constitution. If anything, we should blame the agency for issuing licenses all these years to establishments that violate the constitution.
The fundamental problem here is the fact that this provision is even in the state constitution.
South Carolina didn’t allow restaurants to sell liquor until 1973, and then it required restaurants to deliver alcohol to patrons in minibottles. The constitutional provision that first allowed the minibottles included the “primarily and substantially” language, and the tourism and highway-safety advocates who fought to eliminate minibottles in 2004 had a tough enough time with that battle that they didn’t attempt to remove what is essentially a ban on standalone bars.
And at some point, apparently, most people forgot it was there.
It shouldn’t be there. A constitution should spell out the structure of the government, the rights of the people and little else. This is one of many items that litter our state constitution that are neither.
Unfortunately, we can’t just snap our fingers and eliminate it. The same reason you want the fundamentals of government and rights in a constitution is the reason you don’t want limits on where liquor can be served: Changing it can be an ordeal. The Legislature has to agree, by a two-thirds vote, to hold a public referendum on changing the constitution, and then, if voters agree to the change, the next Legislature has to ratify that change.
But in the year and a half, or more, before we could change the constitution, well-established bars — some important to making South Carolina a tourism attraction — could go out of business.
So the Revenue Department needs to delay the implementation of this requirement at least long enough to give bars a chance to come into compliance, and preferably long enough to allow the Legislature to modify or eliminate it.
It also needs to clarify what “primarily and substantially means.” Sen. Dick Harpootlian, the Columbia attorney who brought the lawsuit that resulted in the policy change, told The State newspaper that he expected the food percentage to be determined “on a case-by-case basis” and predicted that noncompliant bars would be differentiated from restaurants the same way pornography is identified: “You’ll know it if you see it.”
That’s unacceptable. The Revenue Department needs to promulgate regulations that spell out the elements that can be used to meet the requirement, so businesses don’t have to guess.
And when lawmakers return to Columbia in January, they need to get started removing the no-bars provision from the constitution. Any limits they want to impose on what sort of businesses can sell alcohol need to be in state law, where they can be changed as necessary.