The Tennessee Senate’s foremost advocate of loosening state restrictions on where wine can and cannot be sold wants to restart the discussion in a straightforward manner when the Legislature convenes in January.
Bill Ketron, a Republican from Murfreesboro, says the issue is no more complicated than this: Should local citizens decide?
He said it’s the same as letting local voters choose whether to permit liquor stores or allow liquor-by-the-drink.
To that end, Ketron said he’ll likely move to set aside any extraneous amendments now attached to a bill he’s sponsoring that grants locals the power through referendums to decide if grocery stores can sell wine. Senate Bill 837 has since last spring been aging in the chamber’s Calendar Committee where it awaits scheduling for a full-body vote when the Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes in January. As of mid-April, when the bill was last discussed before being shelved for the year, it’d picked up eight amendments through the Senate’s committee system.
Among the add-ons were stipulations on how the state will handle new tax revenues it collects through wine sales, descriptions of stores besides liquor retailers potentially eligible to sell wine, a loosening of regulations governing liquor-store ownership and an item-by-item listing of products in addition to booze that retail liquor outlets could in the future sell.
Ketron, the Senate’s Republican caucus chairman, told TNReport that stripping SB837 of amendment pulp will “get down to the nuts-and-bolts basics of that bill, which is to vote yes or no to allow people to have a referendum,” he said.
The “whole issue,” said Ketron, is the question of who decides. “It’s not about wine in grocery stores, but allowing the people to say they want to be able to vote.”
“If they want it, then they should be allowed to say that — for the same reason that retail stores are in place, through referendum in every community,” Ketron said. “And also, liquor-by-the-drink was by referendum. So that is how we got there on those two and this will be the third, wine in grocery stores.”
As to the extra items, some of which are conceived as trade-offs to help ease the transition for liquor stores, Ketron said he’ll advocate that lawmakers “decorate the Christmas tree on a second bill.”
Ketron said he’s pretty confident the “yes” votes are in place to pass a wine-in-groceries measure in both chambers of the Legislature, but the Senate is going to take the lead.
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, have both indicated they support allowing wine in grocery stores. Last week Lt. Gov. Ramsey tweeted that he’s “looking forward to expanding consumer choice and spurring economic growth with the passage of wine-in-grocery stores.”
“This is the year,” predicted Ketron. “There seems to be a lot of excitement and demand is going up.”
Dan Haskell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association, said he, too, is optimistic that political circumstances “bode well” for reform in 2014.
Advocates of loosening wine-sales restrictions have year after year seen their hopes drowned in sorrow. But Haskell said public opinion for wine in grocery stores is without a doubt surging, and politicians tend to know when to go with the flow.
“People often say that, historically in Tennessee, you don’t pass bills of this type during an election year,” said Haskell. “But for the first time, I think legislators are recognizing how popular this is with voters, and that an election year may be a better time to pass it.”
Haskell said numerous polls over the years have shown majority support for the wine-in-groceries cause. “Everybody pretty well understands that the populace is in favor of the idea,” he said.
If anything, voters “don’t understand why it isn’t already that way,” said Haskell, who used to be a lawyer for the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Nevertheless, liquor store owners, who oppose sharing any of the market they’ve been granted exclusive authority to serve, aren’t ready just yet to throw in the towel and start tossing back jiggers of hemlock.
Chip Christianson, a legislative affairs coordinator for the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, suggested “the Senate is probably not the critical call on that legislation.” Indeed, the House was where the measure got buried in 2013, and where committee votes will likely be tight again in 2014.
“Our feeling on the referendum issue remains the same and it is very, very simple,” Christianson said. “The Legislature is in a better position to make a decision than the general public. It is a complicated issue with a lot of ramifications and a lot of unintended consequences. The Legislature was elected to make decisions like this for the public — and obviously we have a strong position on what we think that decision should be.”
Last year Vanderbilt University pollster John Greer suggested that opinion surveys tend to show “the public wants wine in grocery stores no matter how you frame the question.”
But Christianson doesn’t put much stock in polls. He asserts there’s in fact very little in the way of a passionate grassroots groundswell of demand for changing the status quo. There aren’t people camped out at the Capitol demonstrating in favor of wine in grocery stores, he observed.
And when the argument is offered that “independent Tennessee retailers” will suffer or may even have to shutter their storefronts “for the benefit of Kroger and Publix and WalMart,” some of that public support unquestionably falls away, he maintains.
“When you walk up and just ask somebody ‘Would you like to have wine in grocery stores?’ almost anybody would probably say yes,” Christianson said. “But if you sit down and explain the consequences and the ramifications of that occurring, then you still might have some people feeling that way, but it changes a lot of attitudes. And that is one of the reasons why it’s been so difficult for (supporters of wine in grocery stores). If it was so simple and so clear cut, the grocers should have gotten this passed years ago. But it is not simple and not clear cut. And the Legislature, in its wisdom, has not allowed it.”
As chance would have it, Kroger, Inc., which is headquartered in Cincinnati, was recently named “Retailer of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast magazine. A press release subsequently issued by Kroger led off with the words “Where’s the wine? You won’t find it in Tennessee.” That was followed by a call to legislative action from Rick Going, Kroger’s Nashville Division president.
“We are honored to receive recognition from the experts at Wine Enthusiast; we also can’t help but see the irony in the No. 1 retailer’s not being able to sell wine in our Tennessee stores,” Going’s statement read. “More than 70 percent of Tennesseans want to buy wine where they shop for food, and we couldn’t agree more. We hope the Tennessee General Assembly will pass legislation to give Tennessee consumers the right to vote on wine sales for their communities.”
Alex Harris contributed to this story.