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House OKs Locals Voting on Wine in Grocery Stores

One more vote in Senate, then it’s to the governor

The Tennessee House of Representatives on Thursday approved a measure to allow local voters in counties and cities to decide if they want to allow grocery stores to sell wine.

The Senate passed a similar bill last month and will have to sign off on the House’s version before the legislation heads to the governor’s desk.

The vote in the House was 71 in favor and 15 opposed, with six members abstaining.

Under the terms of House Bill 610, local voters could begin deciding wine-in-groceries referendums as early as this November’s general election. However, wine couldn’t actually be stocked on grocery store shelves until the summer of 2016.

The bill also permits only those jurisdictions that allow liquor-by-the-drink to be eligible to hold referendums on wine in groceries. It stipulates that in order to be eligible to sell wine, 20 percent of a store’s sales must come from food items and that a grocery store must mark the sale price of wine up 20 percent from the wholesale cost. Under the legislative compromise reached with liquor-store owners, retail package stores will be able to sell a variety of products besides booze, which they are currently limited to under the law.

“If you look at the law the way it is right now, I think you would find we have a government-mandated monopoly,” said Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, the sponsor of the bill. He said that for “the first time in this state’s history,” wine sales in Tennessee will be “open to competition.”

The bill wasn’t without vocal opponents. Supporters also agreed the legislation “is not perfect.” Dissenters argued against HB610 on a variety of issues, among them that it favors big-box retailers at the expense of small liquor-store owners and that giving the public greater access to alcohol in the name of convenience will be a detriment to public safety.

Even supporters of allowing locals to vote on wine in groceries weren’t entirely satisfied. Attempts were made to attach amendments to the bill allowing grocery stores to sell “high-gravity” beer, as well as to shorten the interim period before stores could begin stocking wine and do away with the 20 percent mark-up provision. All of those efforts failed.

Opponents also criticized the various parliamentary maneuverings and deal-making that occurred as the legislation journeyed through the House committee system.

Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, said he “sensed a lot of nose-holding today” from members of the House planning to vote in favor of the measure. He suggested that the “flaws” and “non-perfections in this particular piece of legislation” were clearly indicative that at minimum more work is necessary to improve the bill.

“I don’t like Nancy Pelosi-style legislation, where we pass it to find out what’s in it — or, we say, ‘You know what, it’s not perfect but we’ll make changes later, we’ll make changes down the road’,” said Holt. “I don’t like that.”

Nevertheless, for some lawmakers, the fact that none of the interested parties got everything they wanted at the expense of others with a stake in the issue is what made this year’s effort to pass wine-in-groceries politically palatable.

“For the past five years I’ve been in this General Assembly. I have voted against this legislation each and every time,” said Rep Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville. “For the first time this year, we have brought all parties to the table, which is something they don’t do in Washington, D.C. In Washington D.C. there is no compromise at all.”

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, who’s also expressed opposition to wine-in-groceries in the past, voted in favor of the bill Thursday, albeit with reservations. Fitzhugh said he’d like to have seen high-gravity beer included and greater weight given to smaller grocery stores — “not big-boxes like Kroger and Publix.”

“The bill’s not perfect, but it is adequate and above all it is time for this House to move on to more important issues,” said Fitzhugh. “We have spent years on this issue. It has gotten more publicity and press than nearly anything we’ve done so far this session. It is also worth pointing out that this is only the second substantive bill we’ve debated on the House floor this year — the first, of course, was a correction to the guns-in-parks legislation.”

“We have other things that we need to concern ourselves with,” said Fitzhugh.

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