The bill would allow golfers to buy and consume beer on courses.

AUGUSTA (AP) – Weighty budget and tax issues remain undecided in the State House, but behind the scenes, a matter as simple as having a cold beer on the golf links is prompting a heavy stream of e-mails and phone calls to elected officials.

The Senate last week approved and sent to Gov. John Baldacci a bill to allow the sale of beer from golf carts on Maine courses. After a similar bill was killed last session, new legislation sprouted up and the issue again was heavily debated.

Despite attempts to derail the latest measure, it survived and is now on the desk of the governor, an avid golfer himself.

“He’s torn by it,” said Baldacci spokesman Lee Umphrey. Baldacci has also been taken aback by the volume of correspondence he’s receiving from both sides of the issue, and is consulting Cabinet members for advice on whether to let the bill become law.

But like the public, the Cabinet is split on the proposal.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Cantara is advocating against it, saying passage could contribute to the problem of drinking and driving.

On the other side, Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan says the bill creates a layer of alcohol control that doesn’t exist now on the golf courses, where it’s not unusual for duffers to sneak beer into their gear for libations on the links.

“Go to any golf course and the trash bin at the second hole will be filled with beer cans,” said McGowan. “This bill will actually curb alcohol consumption on the golf courses.”

The measure sent to Baldacci includes safeguards that require beer sellers to be trained to sell alcoholic beverages and be at least 21 years old. It also says golfers who operate a cart may not carry open containers of liquor across public ways.

Some of McGowan’s arguments echo through e-mails sent to the governor.

One of several golf resort officials said golfers who confess to bringing in drinks now say they would stop doing it if sales were available on the courses.

The same operator has also been told by golfers that they would reconsider their next vacation destination because they can’t have a beer on Maine golf courses.

Another resort operator said the conference business has been lost to other New England states because of what may seem like a trivial issue to a lot of people, but is a serious matter in the hospitality industry.

“Virtually every other sports venue permits beer sales. Maine hockey games sell beer. Minors attend Maine hockey games. They don’t get beer. This is no different,” wrote Dick Grotton of the Maine Restaurant Association.

But those advocating against the bill said it sends the wrong signal to young people, and that sports and drinking don’t mix.

Nancy Essex of Sabattus said she can’t understand why the state would encourage more use of alcohol while it’s already spending large sums on alcohol and drug treatment.

“If people cannot wait until the 19th hole to drink, then they need to look at their use of alcohol,” Essex wrote. “What’s next? Let baseball players drink during games?”

AP-ES-03-29-04 1807EST

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