By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Supporters of a perennial legislative proposal to allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell wine expressed confidence Thursday that their latest effort could succeed where previous ones failed.
But the bill is meeting its usual stiff resistance from liquor store owners and wholesalers, who want to keep the current system that restricts sales of any alcohol strong than 5 percent to liquor stores.
State Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro and fellow Republican Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol said in a press conference that their bill would put the decision before the voters in cities and counties that currently allow liquor sales.
“Tennesseans deserve the opportunity to vote on this issue,” Ketron said. “If you’re not buying wine where you shop for food, you don’t have to vote for it.
“But we think a lot of Tennesseans will vote for it,” he said.
Opponents argue the change would unfairly harm existing small businesses and make higher-alcohol drinks more widely available to minors
“These out-of-state chains like Walmart and Kroger are determined to get more profit out of the state of Tennessee, no matter what the cost,” Nashville liquor store owner Chip Christianson, an officer in the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association , said in a written statement.
“Legislators must realize what these corporations are trying to do and stop them in their tracks,” he said.
Lundberg said supporters have tried to negotiate with liquor store owners.
“We’ve gone to the industry and said, ‘Let’s talk, and meet about what we can do together,'” Lundberg said. “And frankly, they haven’t wanted to sit at that table.”
Ketron dismissed claims that minors would have easier access to alcohol. He noted that an existing law requiring grocery and convenience store clerks to check IDs for all beer sales would also apply to wine. He proposed changing state law to include liquor stores under the universal carding law.
“It’s time that we treat every alcohol sale the same, regardless of where it’s sold,” he said.
The bill would prevent grocery and convenience stores from selling wine stronger than 18 percent, a move that sponsors said is meant to prevent them from stocking fortified wines. The measure would not authorize grocery stores to sell beer stronger than 5 percent by weight.
“The beer wholesalers don’t support the legislation,” said Rich Foge, the president of the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association. “But we think that if you’re going to put wine in grocery stores up to 18 percent alcohol, then absolutely a high-gravity beer should be allowed to be sold there, side-by-side with other products.”
Ketron said he expects the Senate to evaluate the bill before it is brought up by House committees. The measure has the support of the Republican leaders in both chambers of the General Assembly.
“This really is a reasonable piece of legislation that will be good public policy for Tennessee,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville said he understands the concerns of liquor store owners, but he wants them to take a more serious approach to finding a compromise.
“I’d like to think that we can get this bill out of committee and get it moving, and we’ll have some discussion and figure out where the happy median is,” Ramsey said.
Note: News release on filing of the bill is below.
News release from Senate Republican Caucus:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, filed legislation today that would let Tennesseans vote on whether to allow the sale of wine in retail food stores via a local referendum.
The referendum bill, if passed, would give municipalities in those communities that currently allow retail package stores, liquor-by-the-drink establishments or both to hold a referendum on the sale of wine in retail food stores during the next general election. The authorization law would take effect on Jan. 1, 2014 and would allow a referendum to be held after that date.
“Rep. Lundberg and I strongly believe that Tennesseans deserve the opportunity to vote on this issue,” Sen. Ketron said. “Currently, municipalities decide whether to allow retail package stores or liquor-by-the drink in their communities, so it makes sense to also take the issue of where to sell wine to the voters.”
In order to place the referendum on the ballot, a petition must be presented to the county election commission where the referendum is to be held. The petition must include signatures from 10 percent of the county’s population that voted in the last gubernatorial election. The legislation as written provides the exact ballot question that will be asked of voters.
“Tennessee loses a significant amount of revenue to our border states,” Rep. Lundberg said. “My constituents in Bristol will tell you that they often cross the state line to buy groceries, gasoline and other household necessities. Giving Tennessee’s retail food stores the ability to sell wine will make up for some of that lost revenue and add millions to our state’s coffers.”
Thirty-six states, including six of Tennessee’s border states, allow the sale of wine in retail food stores. Kentucky will soon join the list due to a recent federal court ruling which deemed its liquor laws unconstitutional. According to the Tennessee Fiscal Review Committee, state and local revenues will increase by millions of dollars if consumers are allowed to purchase wine where they shop for food. The fees paid by retail food stores’ wine licenses will cover the cost of additional Alcoholic Beverage Commission staff members.
The legislation will require any retail food store that sells wine to participate in the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s Responsible Vendor Program, which requires retailers’ employees to complete training on the responsible sale of alcoholic beverages. Retail food stores already practice mandatory carding, regardless of the customer’s age or how old he or she might appear to be.
Sen. Ketron and Rep. Lundberg believe that one of the more important pieces of the legislation is the requirement that all retail package stores participate in mandatory carding and take part in the Responsible Vendor Program. Liquor stores are currently exempt from these requirements under current state alcohol laws. This change would allow for uniform treatment of alcohol sales, regardless of where they occur.
The referendum legislation has the support of the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association and the Tennessee Retail Association. The state’s retail food store industry employs an estimated 70,000 Tennesseans and remits hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, real, personal, gross receipts, and Tennessee franchise and excise taxes. Retail food stores support the communities they serve through millions of dollars in annual contributions, countless food donations, and volunteer service to nonprofit organizations, foundations, schools and hunger relief programs.