Grocery Stores Lobbyist Still Anticipates ‘Big Challenges’ for Wine Bills in House

Last week advocates of wine-in-supermarkets made more legislative headway in two days than they’d made in all the years they’ve been pressing the issue.

But a leading lobbyist who has been along for the whole 7-year ride said passage in the lower chamber is by no means now automatic.

“There are big challenges ahead in the House,” said Dan Haskell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Stores Association.

“If you pay any attention at all to legislation on the subject of alcohol, you’ll know that it is difficult to get beyond about 64 votes on any liquor bill in the House,” Haskell told TNReport after the Tennessee Senate’s approval of a wine-in-groceries bill on Thursday. “There are certain legislators who just won’t vote for any liquor bill.”

Add to that lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, who worry competition from wine-in-groceries might drown out mom-and-pop liquor stores, and uncertainty remains in the mix. “I need votes from everybody I can,” said Haskell. “We have to get 50 and there are only about 65 to play with, because of the number of people who just won’t do that.”

Nevertheless, Haskell, a Nashville lawyer who back in the 1980s worked for the state’s alcoholic beverage control agency, said there’s certainly been “a sea change” in the Tennessee General Assembly over the years. During committee hearings on the issue three years ago, “I was having trouble getting a second for it,” he said.

That’s not been the case this year.

On Jan. 28, two House committees handily approved bills that lay out the framework for local voters to approve or reject wine sales in retail locations besides liquor stores. The Senate on Jan. 30 voted 23-8 for local referendums to determine wine-in-groceries, SB837.

In addition to granting locals the power to vote, the upper-chamber measure, sponsored by GOP Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, awards package liquor stores authority to sell other products besides booze and limits future sales of wine to stores that are at least 1,200 square feet; Also, food or food ingredients must make up 20 percent of their product sales. Under the bill, some county voters could see wine-sales referendums as soon as the 2014 general election. However, grocery stores still couldn’t start stocking wines until the summer of 2016.

The House legislation, while still in flux, has the same general thrust, although it differs in some of the details. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has said it isn’t altogether unlikely the two chambers will pass differing versions of the legislation that’ll have to be reconciled in a conference committee.

Haskell attributes his side’s success thus far in large part to the proposed legislation’s handing-off of the ultimate decision to voters. He’s hopeful that in the House otherwise hostile lawmakers can go along with the measure “because they are letting the people decide.”

Even so, Haskell anticipates the House floor vote “will be much closer than it was in the Senate.”

Knoxville Republican Bill Dunn, the chairman of the House Calendar and Rules Committee, is one of those lawmakers who usually votes against any statehouse measure loosening alcohol restrictions. “I’m not a fan of alcohol,” he said. “I see the problems it causes in society. So, to me, it ought to be a little taboo — you ought to have to go to a liquor store to buy your alcohol. Philosophically, that is kind of where I am.”

However, Dunn said he’s undecided on the wine-in-groceries legislation currently under consideration in the House. “Here’s the thing, those bill have changed, and they change by the hour,” he said. The main reason he’s not a certain ‘no’ vote is the let-the-people-vote aspect, said Dunn.

“That makes me have to stop and ask myself if I am letting the local voters decide or am I voting to just let another drug, though legal, be more accessible,” he said. “That’s my thought process.”

The two bills dealing with expanded wine-sales, HB610 and HB47, are scheduled for discussion and a possible vote in the House Finance Subcommittee on Wednesday.

Asked when he thinks the measures will make their way before the full chamber, Haskell said, “As soon as possible if I have anything to do with it.”

“It will be fun when we get to the House floor,” he said.