Despite what appeared to be growing momentum, a bill allowing local referenda on wine sales in food stores was stopped in its tracks Tuesday by the state House Local Government Committee.
The vote was 8-7 against House Bill 610.
The committee proceedings were marked by some parliamentary fireworks. The bill’s Republican sponsor, Jon Lundberg of Bristol, initially appeared confident that he had the votes to move the measure along.
However, following a recess he asked that a vote be postponed for a week. Opponents of the bill weren’t having it, though. Republicans Richard Floyd of Chattanooga, Andy Holt of Dresden and Jimmy Eldridge of Jackson were determined to go forward with a count and, contrary to general legislative courtesy, Lundberg’s request to delay voting for a week was denied.
In casting no votes, Floyd, Holt, and Eldridge were joined by fellow Republicans Dale Carr of Sevierville, Steve Hall of Knoxville, Mike Sparks of Smyrna and Chairman Matthew Hill of Jonesborough, along with Democrat Larry Miller of Memphis.
The issue of wine in supermarkets is not a new one and similar proposals have been defeated in several past legislative sessions. But there were some signs that this bill could be successful where past efforts failed.
Lundberg’s bill and its Senate counterpart, sponsored by Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, both passed previous committee votes, a first for any wine-in-food-stores legislation.
Earlier Tuesday before the House committee meeting, things looked promising for wine-in-supermarkets advocates in the Senate. Sen. Doug Overbey told fellow Finance, Ways & Means committee members that he thought there was a “ warm breeze blowing” on the bill and the committee seemed committed to making the legislation agreeable to liquor retailers.
After the bill’s defeat in the House Local Government Committee, though, liquor wholesalers and retailers were clearly of good cheer, clapping and shaking hands with one another.
Chip Christianson, a board member of the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, which opposed the bill, dismissed questions of growing public support for loosening wine-sales regulations. The Legislature was acting in the best interest of the state be defeating the bill, he said.
“We elect the Legislature to come up here and represent us and study complicated issues and make educated decisions,” Christianson told reporters. “It’s not possible for the general public to understand all of the ramifications of what would have happened if this legislation had passed. the legislature has studied it and they’ve determined that it was not in the public’s best interest.
Tuesday’s action on the issue represents something less than a victory for Republican leadership in the General Assembly. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey had expressed his support on multiple occasions and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, stepped in on March 6 to break a tie and lift the legislation out of the House Local Government Subcommittee.
“As I said last week when I broke the tie in committee, my goal was to see the bill to the full committee for discussion, and we accomplished that,” Harwell told reporters after the committee vote. “Despite the vote today, I remain in favor of the legislation. I am personally disappointed that the bill failed because I believe Tennesseans should have the opportunity to vote via referendum on this issue.”
A notable absence from the Local Government Committee vote was Nashville Democratic Sherry Jones. Although present earlier in the meeting, she left before Lundberg’s bill was discussed.
Jones told TNReport later that she ducked out to represent the Democratic Caucus at a special House Government Operations Committee hearing involving the state’s Department of Children’s Services. “Children are my priority,” she said.
Jones refused to indicate whether she would’ve voted in favor of HB610.
“I was truly on the fence and waiting to see what happened,” she said.