While legislators are apparently not inclined to authorize the sale of wine in grocery stores this year, they are poised to set a record for granting special liquor-by-the-drink licenses.
At least 20 such bills are now pending, including three that await a House floor vote on Monday night.
Only four such bills were approved in 2009, pushing to 48 the total number of such enactments since 1972, when the practice began, a review of records indicates. The previous high for a single year came in 2005, when 12 such laws were enacted.
General state law now allows liquor-by-the-drink (LBD) sales only in cities that have approved them by local referendum. Thus, most establishments located outside a city – or within cities that have not approved LBD – are in “dry” areas and cannot qualify for a license.
Most special liquor license legislation – sometimes called “booze bills” in legislator conversation — grant a special exemption to such establishments. Two of the three bills on the House floor Monday, for example, authorize alcoholic beverage sales at the University of the South at Sewanee in Franklin County (HB3354) and at the Walking Horse Hotel in the Bedford County town of Wartrace (HB3006).
The third (HB3185) allows alcoholic beverage sales at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. While Nashville has approved LBD, the Ryman needs a special bill because it otherwise runs afoul of another state law – one that says only restaurants gaining most of their business from food sales can get a license.
Historically, such bills often inspired heated debate. They have become much less controversial and typically are approved almost routinely, though some legislators – notably including Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville – still occasionally raise objections
In some cases, Dunn says, the special liquor license bills authorize sales in an area where voters have rejected the idea in a referendum and are therefore a way of subverting the wishes of voters.
Also, he said, the bills are often sponsored by legislators who do not represent the area where an establishment receiving the license is located. This is sometimes done with tacit approval of the legislator who does represent the area, but who does not want to be associated with legalizing liquor sales because of concern for local negative political consequences.
“They ought to be man enough to put their name on a bill if it’s having an effect in their district,” he said in a recent interview.
Dunn, who does not drink and says alcohol should be strictly regulated because of its negative impact on society, said the legislated liquor licenses also give “an unfair advantage to a restaurant, or whatever entity it is, willing to hire a lobbyist.”
Most of the special license bills are drafted to apply only to one specific entity; a few have an apparently broader reach.
Examples of pending bills dealing with specific East Tennessee entities include Historic Rugby in Morgan County (HB3469), Oak Ridge Playhouse (SB2617), Rarity Pointe in Loudon County (HB2360), Clayton Center for the Arts in Blount County (SB2496), Boat N RV Center in Cumberland County (HB3461) and a charter boat with capacity for more than 50 passengers in Jefferson County (SB3339).
Examples of bills with an apparent broader scope include a measure that would cover all restaurants in Perry County (HB493), introduced last year but still pending, and another SB3147) that applies to any restaurant located within a mile of Reelfoot Lake. (But then, there probably aren’t many establishments inclined to sell alcoho within a mile of Reelfoot.)
Lead sponsors of the wine-in-groceries legislation, Sen. Bill Ketron (who also sponsors a booze bill or two) and Rep. David Shepherd, have indicated they votes are lacking for passage in the current legislative session and the recommendations of a proposed study committee that would review all state laws dealing with alcoholic beverages with an eye toward recommending changes.
The state, by the way, does benefit from higher fees for establishments licensed through the Legislature as “premier tourist resorts” – the key legal terminology used in most of the legislation. They have to pay a $2,000 annual license fee, while the typical restaurant with an LBD license pays $750.