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Time to Talk About Wine Again

A joint legislative study group is set to uncork another round of discussion Tuesday on changing Tennessee law to allow wine sales in grocery stores.

Leading the committee is Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, who said that just as in the group’s first hearing in late October, he’ll allot mic time to both advocates and opponents of the proposed legislation leftover from last year.

But Ketron, a supporter of the wine-in-grocery-stores bills, said he’s also asked a “neutral party” to corroborate published estimates  — challenged by some who oppose legalizing wine sales outside liquor stores — that as much or more than $17 million dollars in additional state tax revenue could be pressed annually from the private sector if grocery store wine sales were permitted.

For three years now, proponents of bringing Tennessee’s retail wine laws in line with 33 other states have been pushing the issue in the Legislature. For three years they’ve come up empty.

Largely responsible thus far for vanquishing vino drinkers’ visions of greater choice are the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Tennessee, who’ve lobbied heavily against allowing supermarkets to compete in the retail wine market.

“The future of 550 independent Tennessee-owned small businesses, and their over 3,000 employees, are being threatened,” Chip Christianson, a Nashville liquor store owner and board member for the TWSRA, told the study group during its last meeting.

“How many lost jobs and lost Tennessee businesses are worth a little more convenience for a very few?” he asked.

Christianson also suggested during the hearing that grocery store employees are not reliably capable of determining if customers seeking to purchase “high-proof alcohol products” are of legal age.

One strategy Ketron and his allies are employing to try and cobble together more political support this time around is to invite some of the traditional foes of grocery store wine sales to belly up to the bargaining table.

Retail liquor store owners tend to labor under some pretty onerous restrictions themselves, said Ketron, so it’s probably time to consider reforming a whole range of the state’s three-quarters-of-a-century-old booze-business laws.

Today’s hearing will include discussions about problematic regulatory issues that hinder them as well, he said.

For example, state laws prohibits liquor stores from selling products like ice, beer and non-alcoholic drink mixers and proprietors are banned from owning more than one outlet. Ketron, who also chairs the Senate State and Local Government Committee, said he’d like to see those rules relaxed, too.

Basically, Tennessee’s business regulations that govern the sale of alcohol are antiquated and in need of updating across the board, he said.

“Many of (the laws) go back to the early 1930s, around the time Prohibition was repealed,” said Ketron. “They’ve become convoluted…and it’s basically led to the jumbled mess that we have today.”

The hearing starts this afternoon at 1:30 (agenda-pdf). Watch it online here.