The state’s General Assembly has put the finishing touches on an effort to enable consumers to have greater access to wine in Tennessee. Legislation that will allow local citizens to vote on whether they want to allow supermarkets and small grocery stores in their communities to sell wine is headed for Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.
On Monday night the state Senate capped off a years-long push to legalize wine sales in places besides just retail package liquor stores, as current law stipulates. On a series of 22-5 votes, the Senate moved to erase some minor differences that existed in a bill it had passed in January with what the House had passed Feb. 20.
“This bill’s been a long time coming,” said Bill Ketron, the GOP caucus chairman and sponsor of the measure. “As the commercial says, there won’t be wine until its time.” He added, “I thank you very much for your support and good work in the Senate.”
For at least seven years the Legislature has been debating whether to enable grocery stores to sell wine. It wasn’t until last year that the effort began gaining real traction.
Polls have for the past few years been showing rising public support for wine-in-grocery stores. The most recent statewide opinion survey, from Middle Tennessee State University, indicates 63 percent of respondents said they support “letting grocery, convenience and other stores that sell food in Tennessee sell wine if they are located in places that allow the sale of alcoholic beverages.”
Lawmakers who supported this year’s bill “actually listened to the people who want that opportunity to purchase wine in the grocery stores,” Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican, said on the Senate floor Monday. He played up the referendum aspect, which he said “leaves it in the hands of voters.”
“They can vote it down or they can vote it in,” he said.
Assuming Gov. Haslam doesn’t veto the measure, which he’s given no indication he’s considering, local counties and cities that already allow liquor-by-the-drink will be given the green light to place wine-in-groceries ballot questions before voters. Even if voters approve, only stores that meet certain restrictions — like that 20 percent of a store’s sales are comprised of food items and the establishment must be at least 1,200 square feet — will be approved to sell wine.
Voters could start seeing those referendums by November. However, under the political compromise reached to bring aboard lawmakers who worry liquor stores will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, grocery stores won’t be allowed to sell wine until the summer of 2016, so as to give liquor retailers time to prepare for changes to the marketplace. The law also allows liquor stores to sell more items than they’ve been allowed in the past.
In a statement issued after Monday’s vote, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who serves as speaker of the state Senate, said he’s “proud to see this issue finally settled in the legislature.”
He lauded the bill as “a solid compromise that allows for the expansion of consumer choice while protecting small businesses that took risks and invested capital under the old system.”
Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville, has said his far-northeast Tennessee district is one where in-state grocery stores are losing customers across state lines because they can’t stock wine. The let-the-locals-vote aspect of the bill “puts the issue where it belongs: in the hands of the people of Tennessee,” he said.