Jindal pressured to veto alcohol at more theaters

Ice-cold beer and buttery popcorn? They’re already on the menu at AMC theaters in Harvey, Metairie, Harahan, Houma and Hammond, as well as Celebrity Theatres in Broussard.

Senate Bill 654 would allow other commercial film theaters across the state to stock alcoholic beverages. The bill squeaked out of the Louisiana House with exactly the number of votes it needed. Now it’s before Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is under pressure to veto it.

On the governor’s desk are letters from legislators and a vocal church congregation. They all ask Jindal to stop the bill from becoming state law.

“Other legislators argued that alcohol in movie theatres is a growing trend, and ... passing this bill was supporting business growth opportunities. However I believe allowing alcohol permits within movie theatres disregards family values and encourages underage drinking and driving in lieu of financial gain,” state Rep. Valarie Hodges wrote Jindal earlier this month. Hodges, R-Denham Springs, urged the governor to use his veto power.

State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, raised a different issue in his letter to the governor.

The day SB654 received final legislative passage in the House, state Rep. Steve Pylant was sick at home. Yet Pylant’s machine somehow cast the favorable vote that sent the legislation to the governor’s desk. Pylant, R-Crowville, strode to the podium on the House floor the next day and complained. By that point, it was too late.

“Obviously, someone voted Representative Pylant’s machine without him being in the building. This is an obvious violation of House rules and calls the validity of the bill into question. As a result of the defective manner in which the bill was passed, legal action challenging it is a certainty,” warned Seabaugh, who is a lawyer.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. J.P. Morrell, said huge problems aren’t arising at the theaters that already sell alcohol. He questions what the big deal is, adding that people aren’t getting drunk while watching a Disney film.

“Three theaters in Jefferson already do this. ... There have not been terrible incidents of underage drinking,” he said.

Morrell, D-New Orleans, said the bill’s critics want to embrace pro-family values while ignoring the impossibility of legislating common sense and good taste. Someone doesn’t need alcohol to act like a jerk at a movie theater, he said.

Another proponent, lobbyist Chris Young, said Chuck E. Cheese’s sells beer and wine in a completely family-oriented atmosphere. Restaurants hand patrons kids’ menus as well as wine lists. “This is really no different than any other environment. All restaurants have kids in them. It really comes down to personal responsibility,” Young said.

Sorting Louisiana’s theaters into categories requires a bit of fuzzy math. For the most part, they aren’t really restaurants, which obtain permits to sell alcohol. Manship Theatre in the Shaw Center for the Arts in Baton Rouge is considered a performing arts venue even though it screens the occasional film series. The Theatres at Canal Place in New Orleans fall into a separate category all together because they serve entrees and only allow in adults.

Previous leadership at the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control granted exceptions for theaters that strictly are in business to sell movie tickets. Theaters in Harvey, Metairie, Harahan, Houma, Hammond and Broussard received permission to sell alcohol. Last year, AMC Theaters announced plans to sell wine at its cinemas in Baton Rouge.

A meeting with Troy Hebert, the current commissioner of the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, quickly shelved those plans.

What AMC Theaters needed was an exception, and Hebert wasn’t willing to give one. He wants to preserve movie theaters as an alcohol-free venue for families.

“I’ve never granted one because I’m not for it. It’s not enforceable. My daddy used to say the best place to hide in public is in the back row of the picture show,” Hebert said.

SB654 would allow a “bona fide commercial film theater” to apply for a liquor permit. No exception would be needed. The bill sparked fierce debate on the House floor after fairly smooth sailing through the Senate. Conservatives in the House assailed the bill as an attack on family values. Pylant later said he never would have cast his vote in favor of it had he been feeling well when the vote was taken.

The bill implements more stringent rules than those that theaters now selling alcohol have to follow. Alcohol sales would have to be physically separated from other concession sales. No one under age 18 would be allowed to enter the area where alcohol is sold.

Theaters looking to sell alcohol would need two layers of approval. They would need to go before local officials as well as Hebert’s office.

Members of Trinity Baptist Church in Natchitoches told Jindal they don’t want their children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren to go to a movie where alcohol is sold. “This exposure to this in movies where children are dropped off by parents will open opportunities for a vast number of problems,” they predicted.

Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter, @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog