(Photo: Arpad Radoczy/Fotolia) (Photo: Arpad Radoczy/Fotolia)

Legislative leaders from rural Georgia want to change the law to make it easier for the state’s growing number of wineries to profit from their vintage.

Wine selling tops the legislative recommendations released Thursday by the Rural Development Council of the Georgia House of Representatives, a panel created last year.

The council’s plans for the 2019 legislative session starting in January also include:

  • Creating a grant program to help rural communities and small towns spruce up blighted areas;
  • Restructuring tax law to encourage development of broadband services;
  • Streamlining the permitting process for installing small-cell technology;
  • Easing restrictions on hospital expansion by revising the certificate of need application process; and
  • Increasing rural hospital tax credits.

The council is led by co-chairs Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, and Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla.

“These recommendations reflect the council’s in-depth work and research that we have gathered as we have traveled the state over the last two years,” England said in a news release Thursday. “The council’s recommendations will provide us with a solid framework as we begin to craft legislation for the 2019 legislative session.”

“Last session, rural Georgia saw tremendous legislative success in the General Assembly, but there is still much work to be done,” Powell said in the same news release. “Our recommendations for the 2019 legislative session seek to address some of those concerns that still need to be met in rural Georgia.”

The council was created by House Resolution 389 during the 2017 legislative session. It has 12 members and 11 ex-officio members, in addition to the co-chairs. The group’s charge is to work with rural communities to find ways to encourage economic growth.

The council said that, despite an overall, steady economic recovery for the state as a whole, rural portions of Georgia have not shared proportionately in the recovery, and that lag is exacerbated as rural areas are losing population. The report contains the recommendations for the second year of the group’s work performed in 2018. During this second year of the council, members met 15 times in five communities across the state and heard from local officials and policy experts to do a deep dive on some of the more difficult topics from last year—including economic development, health and education issues.

Georgia has become home to a blossoming number of farm wineries, but current state law makes it unnecessarily difficult for them to make a profit, the council report said.

“Currently in order for a producer to get a wholesale license, a farm winery must first receive a denial letter from an established distributor. Only then may a farm winery apply to the state to become a wholesale distributor,” the council report said. “The problem for farm wineries is that some distributors are not interested in doing business with small vineyards, while other distributors view them as competition and will not give them a denial letter.”

The wineries tried to go around the hurdle by helping each other. Some already approved as distributors began writing denial letters to other wineries, so that those other wineries could become their own distributors. But the Georgia Department of Revenue figured that out and closed the loophole, according to the report.

“Now wineries are back in the same situation of seeking denial letters from distributors who view them as competition,” the council said.

Plus the state puts more burdens on those wineries that are successful in becoming their own distributor, the council said. Their reward is a stifling amount of paperwork and reporting requirements.

“Rather than having streamlined reports tailored to their industry, some farm wineries must file separate paperwork with the Department of Revenue as a producer, then again as a distributor, and as a retailer,” the council said.

The groups hope to streamline, through legislation, the paperwork and process for farm wineries, and to allow them to sell up to 24,000 gallons of their own wine without having to be first refused by an established distributor.