Speaker Harwell Lifts Spirits of Wine-in-Supermarkets Backers

Advocates for wine sales in Tennessee food stores scored another legislative victory by the slimmest of margins Wednesday, thanks to a crucial rescue effort by House Speaker Beth Harwell.

Members of the state House Local Government Subcommittee voted to pass House Bill 610, sponsored by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol. The law would allow for municipal and county-level referenda to decide if supermarkets and convenience stores could start selling wine. Currently, only package liquor stores are able to sell wine in the state.

The vote, expected to be close, ended up hinging on Speaker Harwell, whose “aye” put the final tally at 5-4. Though not an actual committee member, as the speaker Harwell can sit in and vote on any committee or subcommittee she chooses. Wednesday marked the first time this session the Nashville Republican has exercised that particular legislative perk that comes with being the chamber’s most powerful lawmaker.

Among those voting “no” on the subcommittee was Republican Rep. Richard Floyd of Chattanooga who said that, as a Baptist, if it were up to him he’d “close every liquor store in the state.” Floyd expressed concerns about increased alcoholism and more drunk drivers on Tennessee roads if wine sales are expanded beyond liquor stores. He also worried small liquor-sales businesses could lose market share to new competitors.

Joining Floyd in opposing HB610 were fellow Republican Dale Carr of Sevierville and Steve Hall of Knoxville, along with Democrat Rep. Larry Miller of Memphis.

While the prospect of wine in supermarkets enjoys wide public support, the issue has long been an area of contention at the Tennessee Capitol, with entrenched interests on both sides keeping lawmakers deadlocked. Opponents, including liquor wholesalers and package retailers, have managed to shut down similar wine-in-supermarkets legislation during several past sessions.

But momentum appears to be shifting this session, at least for the moment. With the movement of Rep. Lundberg’s bill — as well as its companion legislation in the Senate sponsored by Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, which won a 5-4 committee vote of its own on Feb. 26 — this year marks the first a wine-in-supermarkets bill has ever successfully been moved out of a committee in either chamber.

Lundberg’s bill will now go to the full House Local Government Committee. On Tuesday, discussion on Ketron’s bill was put off until next week in the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee.

Chip Christianson, a board member with the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, isn’t pleased either bill is still afloat. His group is opposing any immediate change in the statewide regulatory status quo with respect to where wine can and cannot be sold.

On Wednesday, Christianson expressed surprise at the outcome of the House subcommittee vote. He blamed success of the House and Senate bills on political pressure he says is being applied by the GOP chamber bosses.

“I think in both cases it had to do with the speakers of both houses pushing very, very hard on the committee members,” Christianson told reporters. “We did not expect this today. We thought we had commitments from people so it wouldn’t turn out this way. But obviously, as you saw, Speaker Harwell got very much involved and she was able to turn a few votes.”

Lt. Gov. Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville who serves as speaker of the Senate, has made his support for wine in food stores clear this year.

Harwell told reporters that she stepped into the subcommittee because she was “pretty confident” that her tie-breaking authority “was going to be necessary today.”

But she denied twisting any arms.

“I did have an opportunity to meet with the subcommittee prior to the meeting and kind of talk about the pros and cons, and I don’t believe I put undue pressure on anyone,” said the former Belmont University political science instructor. “I just wanted to get an accurate count for myself.”

Despite being buoyed by the support of high-ranking Republican lawmakers so far, there are still multiple hurdles before the measure becomes law. Speaker Harwell declined to speculate on bill’s chances going forward, but said she hoped keeping it alive allows for continued input and negotiations to make it more “palatable” to the liquor industry and other opponents.

At a legislative reception for the Tennessee Farm Wine Growers’ Alliance Thursday evening, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada put the bill’s chances of winning approval in the full Local Government Committee at “greater than 50-50.”

Both Casada and Harwell noted that the issue isn’t one on which lawmakers fall along partisan lines. Legislators in both parties are for and against granting local citizens permission to vote on wine sales in their communities, they said.

“This is one of those issues, which is common in the House — it is nonpartisan, it is just a matter of your beliefs,” said Casada. “So I look forward to working with our Democratic friends on getting this passed.”

The Wine and Spirits Retailers Association’s Christianson vowed to keep fighting what he called the “bad public policy” of potentially loosening Tennessee wine-sales restrictions. He also rejected that a compromise is possible, even though supporters have said they’re willing to reform the laws governing liquor stores in order to allow them to expand their businesses.

Mark Engler contributed to this story.