By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers are poised to decide this week whether a proposal to allow supermarket wine sales moves ahead or withers on the vine.
The bill to overhaul the current system that prevents shoppers from buying wine alongside groceries faces votes in both House and Senate committees this week, where as little as a single vote could decide the bill’s fate after months of lobbying.
“It could fall either way at this point,” said Republican Sen. Ken Yager of Harriman, chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
Yager’s committee meets Monday to hear from both sides of the bill, which seeks to allow cities and counties to hold referendums on whether to do away with liquor stores’ exclusive license to sell wine. The nine-member panel is scheduled to vote the following day.
Yager, who opposes of the bill on the basis that the change would hurt existing package stores in his district, said the measure could come down to a 5-4 vote.
“There is a little more intensity this year, because the proponents of the bill feel really encouraged and they’re pumped up,” Yager said. “I’m just not willing to vote for something that would hurt local business.”
Current law prevents grocery and convenience stores from selling any alcoholic drinks stronger than beer, while package stores can’t sell anything except for liquor. Constituent support for wine sales in groceries seems strong in the state’s larger cities, where the grocery stores have erected displays encouraging shoppers to get behind the bill.
Supporters of expanded wine sales say liquor stores should be able to sell other items such as beer, ice, mixers and snacks, but so far those offers have been rebuffed by the other side in favor of current laws.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville and fellow Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville both support the supermarket wine measure.
Ramsey told reporters last week that a favorable vote in the Senate committee could force lobbyists for the liquor stores and wholesalers to join in negotiations, which they have been unwilling to do while they could count on the bill being killed in committee each year.
“I hear from my local liquor store owners that if you open it up and allow us to sell other things, the potato chips and snacks that you get a 100 percent markup on, then we’re OK with this bill,” Ramsey said. “But as long as the opponents of this bill have at least five votes to hold it up in committee, that’s never going to happen.”
Ramsey said he’s more confident that the Senate panel will advance the measure than he is that the House Local Government Committee will do the same on Tuesday.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga and a supporter of supermarket wine sales, said he’s uncertain about the outcome of the vote, but added that “it’s more favorable than it’s ever been.”
McCormick said the proposed overhaul of liquor laws reflects Republicans’ willingness to re-evaluate issues that Democrats refused to consider in the decades they ran the Legislature.
“There have been some special interests over the years that have gotten used to getting their way every time,” McCormick said. “We’re taking a new look at things.”
House Local Government Chairman Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said he remains undecided about the bill and called this week’s hearings key to the measure’s fate.
“This has been very educational for me,” he said. “I’ve had both sides in my office — I don’t want to say nonstop — but quite a bit over the last couple weeks.”