A state representative says his bill to close bars at midnight isn’t exactly about that. It’s meant to attract attention to another issue.
Memphis Republican Curry Todd has proposed a bill to make all places serving mixed drinks shutdown at midnight. He says he did it to get some attention to the fact that there is no legal definition of what a “bar” is in Tennessee.
State law doesn’t allow for bars as most people think of them – places which sell mostly drinks. In order to serve alcohol, a business must make 51 percent of its sales in food. Todd says that’s just not reality.
“We’ve got to look, and go back in, as a state, to try to find out, how do we define, it’s a bar, or a restaurant, or we call it a tavern, it could be a tavern. We set up some kind of criteria, legitimate criteria, for these folks to get a license, if they want to sell alcoholic beverages.”
Ultimately, Todd hopes to clarify a measure he sponsored last year to allow hand-gun permit holders to take their concealed weapons into restaurants. That law was dubbed “guns in bars.” A state judge overturned it the saying the law was unconstitutionally vague, mainly because whether a restaurant serves more food than alcohol isn’t always obvious.
Todd has introduced two related bills.
“Midnight Closing” Bill
The bill that purports to close drinking establishments at midnight that has attracted the most attention: HB 3637 Todd/SB 3156 Faulk.
Before Todd became a state representative, he was a police officer in Memphis.
“Being on the police department, I know what a bar is. I’ve been in thousands of them, over the years.”
The ex-cop in Todd can actually make an argument for midnight closing. Todd says he believes 40 percent of DUI arrests come after 11 p.m. He says police are stretched thin in the wee hours, when anything can happen.
“I’ve gotten thousands of calls over here, from police officers, and others, and police chiefs, that would like to see this bill go forward, because it would really help them. But I know in reality it’s not, it’s an economic issue and I know that.”
“But to bring folks to the table sometimes you have to put out a little drastic measures there and get folks’ attention, and I think that’s what I’ve done. And now we can move forward, and try to define what a bar is, and maybe give the law enforcement community a little help there, and I think we’ll move on.”
Todd admits the bill is a “caption,” or a shell bill, one designed to be later amended into a related but different bill.
“The bill is actually designed, more of a caption-type bill…and that’s the language they put in there, to get the attention out there, to try to look and define what a bar is.”
One outcome could be – in the future, laws could be written to allow gun-carriers to legally carry in restaurants, but not in the newly-defined bars.
“How Much Food Do You Sell” Bill
Todd says the problem with calling a bar a “restaurant” that happens to serve drinks shows up when you look at their kitchen.
“To get a restaurant [serving alcoholic beverages] license in the state of Tennessee you have to meet a certain criteria set out by the state law and the Alcoholic Beverage Commission. And it specifically states you must serve regular meals, you gotta have 75 seats capacity seating, you got to have a proper kitchen, and meals have to be real meals, not hot dogs or chicken fingers in the microwave.”
But Todd says the ABC, the Alcohol Beverage Commission, has no way to check to see if licensees continue to meet that requirement.
“And you’re getting some folks out there, who just have a bar, going to the ABC, and getting a restaurant license, which gives them, then, the authority to sell mixed drinks, which enhances their revenue. But, they’re not meeting the criteria set out by the state law, and the state standards by ABC, to actually obtain that license.”
To address that problem, Todd proposes this bill, HB 2675 Todd/SB 2758 Jackson.
The bill would require licensees to swear to the amount of food sold in their “restaurants” when getting their drink-sales license renewed.
The bill is due to be taken up Wednesday, Feb. 17, by the Local Government Subcommittee of House State & Local Government.
Todd is the chair of the parent State and Local Government Committee, and chairmen rarely have trouble guiding bills through their own committees.