Opinion polling shows robust public support for ending Tennessee’s prohibition on wine sales in grocery stores. However, political support for changing the rules always seems to lack a can-do spirit among state lawmakers.
Nevertheless, Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, a perennial advocate of rolling back the strict state-level limitations on where wine can and cannot be sold, believes this could be a good year for oenophiles to taste victory in Tennessee’s full legislative body.
Surveys conducted in 2011 by Middle Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt showed popular support for wine in grocery stores flowing at 65 percent or better. A majority of Tennesseans favors allowing wine sales in grocery stores “no matter how you frame the question,” said one pollster recently.
But many years of effort to allow wine sales in grocery stores have yet to bear fruit. Reform pushes have always gotten bottled up in committee, then they sink without a bubble.
One subtle political key to a gratifying finish for wine-in-grocery advocates this year will be to avoid appearing to endorse a wholesale statewide slackening of rules governing alcohol sales and purchases, said Ketron, who along with Bristol Republican state Rep. Jon Lundberg is sponsoring the legislation.
Rather, Ketron will seek to cultivate the discourse around a philosophical question of proper governance: Who is typically the more appropriate authority to make decisions affecting local communities, the state government or local citizens?
“We won’t be voting for wine in grocery stores,” Ketron told TNReport. “We will be voting for letting the people decide if they want wine in grocery stores.” He added that the “local control” option would also only be available to voters in the 33 counties that already allow liquor by the drink.
Ketron acknowledged that much of the opposition to wine in grocery stores will come from socially conservative Republicans who “don’t want to have anything to do with alcohol.” No doubt, they will be tough to sell on anything that might expand the places where wine gets sold in Tennessee, Ketron said.
However, if the debate is couched in such a way that allows them to maintain that the state isn’t itself “loosening the laws,” but rather, “letting the people decide,” Ketron is hopeful the bill will get out of the Senate. That would add pressure on House Republicans to take it up in a serious fashion, he said.
“You would be hard pressed to come up with a rationale for refusing the right of the people to vote on an issue like this — and that is a strong Republican plank,” said Ketron, an insurance salesman from Murfreesboro.
In order to try and assuage opposition among liquor store owners, Ketron said he’s eager to discuss whatever changes in the law are necessary to permit them to sell more nonalcoholic products. Ketron hopes that will help offset the potential loss in business liquor store owners fear they’ll suffer if their exclusive right to sell packaged booze in Tennessee is in any way diluted.
“They should be able to sell whatever they want to sell in retail liquor stores,” he said. “Why should they be restricted from selling ice or beer or mixers or chips or crackers? They could sell furniture for all I care. Every other type of business is not restricted if they want to sell whatever.”
While Democrats aren’t in any position to drive legislative discussions over the next two years, what with them being a super minority in both the House and Senate following the 2012 general election, on the wine-in-grocery-stores debate they may have some clout — particularly in the House, where every vote counts in committees when Republicans are divided.
Democrats have not in the past been friendly to the idea of loosening wine-sales restrictions — and there’s little reason to expect that will change this time around, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh hinted recently.
The Ripley Democrat said he’s in fact a little confused why Republicans would seriously consider granting voters in local jurisdictions the authority to approve wine sales in grocery stores.
“The majority party talks about small businesses, promoting small businesses and those sorts of things. Well, those small businesses that sell the liquor, they are Tennessee residents. They would probably be wiped out if you did that,” Fitzhugh told reporters during a press conference on Dec. 18. “I just wonder about the consideration given to Tennessee small businesses when you want to let Walmart and Kroger and some of those big ones do that.”
Public safety is also a concern, he said.
“When you have every grocery store and convenience store in the community selling alcohol, then you’ve got to worry about underage drinking and all those things that we have been so concerned about,” Fitzhugh added.
High-level majority-party politicians are playing somewhat coy about the prospect of the legislation’s success.
House GOP Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said the voters in his district support it. Changing the law in 2013 to allow wine in grocery stores “probably has a better chance than it ever has,” he said.
But the bill’s fortunes probably come down, as usual, to the makeup of legislative committees, he said.
“They have done a good job of stopping it in the past,” McCormick said. “I think that certainly it will be debated and voted on this year, and I really won’t know until we see who is on what committees as to whether it has a chance of getting out of the committee system this year.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell supports the push for allowing wine in grocery stores. But her feelings on the issue won’t affect how she serves up committee assignments after the New Year, said the Nashville Republican.
“I’ve made it quite clear I believe it’s time for grocery stores to be allowed to sell wine — and I believe Tennesseans want that — but we want to do it in a way that creates an equal playing field for the mom and pop stores as well,” she told the Knoxville News Sentinel in an email recently. “However, I don’t develop my committees based on one particular issue. There are many things to consider when appointing members to committees–expertise, personal experiences, and previous service on the committee, among other things.”
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the speaker of the Tennessee Senate, favors giving locals the power to approve wine sales in grocery stores, but he doesn’t perceive it’s a priority to many in his caucus.
Gov. Bill Haslam has signaled that changing up the way the state regulates wine sales isn’t a matter of great importance for his administration either. He offhandedly remarked that wine-in-grocery-stores legislation “won’t come from us” when a reporter broached the topic earlier this month.
All the same, proponents of wine in grocery stores believe the glass looks half full or better this year.
“We are going to make a much stronger effort this year to pass it in the House and the Senate,” said Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association lobbyist Dan Haskell. “We have made some small but incremental progress with this in the past few years.”
“The truth of the matter is we’ve got sponsors, we’ve got good sponsors,” he continued. “Last year was an election year and politicians are leery of voting on liquor-related things in elections years. This is not an election year.”
“The vast majority of Tennesseans want us to win,” Haskell said.