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First Committee Vote Set on Localizing Wine-Sales Regulations

In what’s become annual rite, pro and con pour out their opinions in packed committee room

The committee room was stuffed to the gills and visitors wore their opinions on their lapels Monday afternoon as state senators met to gather input on a bill that could pave the way for many of Tennessee’s grocery stores to start selling wine.

Members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, including bill sponsor Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, heard nearly two hours of testimony on whether or not to allow local Tennessee citizens to vote if supermarkets, big-box stores and convenience stores in their towns and counties should be able to sell wine.

Over a dozen people, among them law enforcement officials, physicians, clergy, and representatives from the grocery and liquor sales industries gave prepared statements and perspectives on the measure, Senate Bill 837. Supporters and opponents filled the seats and aisles, many wearing badges with slogans like “No to Wine in Grocery Stores” and “Let Tennesseans Vote.”

For his part, Ketron emphasized that wine in grocery stores has strong public support and that the current legislation wouldn’t automatically change sales policies.

“A ‘yes’ vote will not put wine on the shelves of food stores…A ‘yes’ vote would allow the public, your constituents, to decide whether they want to purchase wine,” in grocery stores, said Ketron, the Senate GOP Caucus chairman.

Representatives from the food-store industry made an economic case in support of the bill, arguing that package liquor stores have for long enough enjoyed the protections and benefits of a “government-protected monopoly.” Expanding wine sales beyond liquor stores would bring increased tax revenues, as well as lower prices, better choices and time-saving convenience for consumers through broadened competition, they said.

But other speakers voiced concern that an increase in alcohol sales could have negative effects on public health and safety.

Madison County Sheriff David Woolfork worried that having wine available in food stores could also make it easier for underage customers to buy alcohol. He argued that more convenience might come at too high a cost. “Public safety versus public opinion — I’d still have to lean back toward the public safety issue,” Woolfork said.

Dr. Randy Davis, self-described as a “teetotalling Baptist” minister, expressed similar concerns, talking about his experience counseling people struggling with alcoholism. Allowing locals to vote on the issue might also divide close-knit communities or stir strife amongst small-town families and friends, he said.

“I ask you to not make the decision just based on convenience, but allow compassion to enter into your decision-making process,” Davis said.

To Ketron, the issues can be boiled down to democratic choice and local control: “The reason I brought [the bill] is because the people I represent want it. It’s not just convenience, it’s what the people want and if I don’t listen to what the people want who sent me here, then we all need to go home.”

The committee will meet again Tuesday morning at 10:30 to take action on the bill with the vote expected to be tight.

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