By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Contributions totaling more than $364,000 have poured into lawmakers’ campaign accounts over the past two years from liquor wholesalers, package stores and the beer industry — three groups that have traditionally opposed changing state law to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets.
An Associated Press analysis of campaign finance data shows that six of the 11 members of the Senate Finance Committee, which is scheduled to take up a bill Tuesday to hold local referendums on whether to expand wine sales, received a combined $38,000 from the three political action committees. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville alone received $13,000. (Note: The vote was postponed until next week.)
The remaining five members of the Senate panel received no contributions from the three groups.
Norris, who voted against the measure when it eked out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee by a one-vote margin last week, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
“There’s no greater champion of the people’s right to vote than I am, that’s not what it’s about,” Norris told the panel last week. “I believe people need to know and have as much detail and information about what they’re voting for or against when they do that.”
Members of the subcommittee scheduled to take first House action on the measure on Wednesday received $15,000 from the three PACs, while members of the full committee received $10,000 more.
The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Tennessee PAC contributed $168,200, the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers PAC gave $114,291 and $81,569 came from the beer wholesalers. Lobbyist for the three groups either didn’t return calls or declined to comment.
The groups’ contributions to key House members may have been depressed because Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, didn’t announce her reshuffled committee assignments until a fundraising blackout went into effect during the legislative session. For example, Local Government Chairman Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, received nothing from the three groups.
A Middle Tennessee State University poll released last week showed 65 percent support supermarket wine sales, while 24 percent oppose it. The telephone poll of 650 Tennesseans has a margin of error of plus or minus four 4 percentage points.
But opponents say the change would adversely affect the about 600 existing liquor stores around the state. They also raise concerns about higher-proof alcohol becoming more widely available to minors.