The latest legislative attempt to roll back the state-mandated limit on locations where consumers can buy wine was officially uncorked in the Tennessee House and Senate this week.
This year’s proposal would established a citizens’ initiative mechanism to trigger local votes on whether wine could be sold in grocery stores in a particular county where enough signatures were gathered – 10 percent of registered voters who cast ballots in the most recent gubernatorial election. State Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro and Rep. Jon Lundbergof Bristol unveiled the details of their legislation during a press conference Thursday.
“I want to point out that this is the way that local voters decide today whether to allow retail liquor stores or liquor by the drink in their respective communities. So it makes sense to take this issue on where to sell wine to those voters,” said Ketron, a Republican who’s been pushing fruitlessly for years to loosen state restrictions on wine-sales locations.
This year may be different, though, he said: Public support is becoming more and more fortified.
“I think you’ve hit that junction of people saying, ‘it’s enough. It’s time to move this forward’,”added Rep. Lundberg, also Republican.
Advocates of wine-in-groceries appear to enjoy top-shelf political support in the Tennessee General Assembly. Both the House speaker and lieutenant governor favor the legislation, as do high-ranking Republicans like House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick and House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada. Ketron himself is the Senate Republican Caucus chairman.
“I’d like to think that if we can get this bill out of committee and get it moving, then we’ll have some discussion,” said Ron Ramsey, the speaker of the Senate.
But as in years past, opposition is entrenched. And it crosses party lines; Democratic leaders in both chambers of the Legislature — Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Memphis Sen. Jim Kyle — have voiced objections to the push. Opponents of loosening wine-sales laws tend to float a range of protectionist arguments — from protecting public safety to protecting public morals to protecting mom-and-pop liquor stores from the competitive mercies of the “big boys,” like Wal-Mart and Kroger.
Ultimately, it’s an issue of fairness, and changing long-established rules without careful consideration of potential winners and losers is anything but that, said Ryan Haynes, a Knoxville Republican who chairs the House State Government Committee. Haynes suggest recently that any change in the law should be put on hold 3-5 years to give liquor store owners plenty of time to prepare.
There are a lot of kinks to be ironed out so as not to harm existing liquor stores, he said. “I think we really want a playing field that is level for everybody, and I think that to just ram it right through is probably not the best course of action.”
Haynes is also no fan of giving power directly to the people to decide whether to legalize wine sales in grocery stores on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis. “I don’t want to see Tennessee ran like California, where everything goes to a referendum,” he said.
“There’s a whole host of other issues that are out there,” Haynes said. “Right now liquor stores are only allowed in municipal limits. What do you do about the convenience store who may be just across the street? That now gives the person in the municipality an unfair advantage over the guy who is not in the municipality. Those are all kind of issues that have to be worked out if we are going to address this issue.”
The Ketron-Lundberg bill would allow for local elections on whether to allow wine in groceries as early as November 2014.
“There is already a couple of years for folks to change business plans,” said Lundberg. “But I’ll also tell you that if there is any liquor store owner in Tennessee who has not over the last few years realized this is an issue and this might be coming down the pike, then they have really not been in touch with any kind of media.”
Trent Seibert and Mark Engler contributed to this story.