House Speaker Beth Harwell cast the deciding vote Wednesday to keep a wine-in-grocery-stores bill from failing in a House subcommittee.
Harwell, who has the right under House rules to sit and vote on any committee, voted twice in the House State Government Subcommittee.
First, she broke a 4-4 tie on a motion by Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, to delay action on the bill (HB610) until July, 2014. Carr said the delay – which would have effectively killed the bill – would provide “time to sit down on both sides and see if we can get something worked out.”
After Carr’s motion was defeated, Harwell then broke a 4-4 tie on the bill itself. With her vote, the measure advances out of the subcommittee for a vote next week in the full House State Government Committee.
Harwell said afterwards she felt it important to “show momentum” for the legislation in the House and hopes that will “bring folks to the table” from the opposing side to negotiate some compromise – probably to be incorporated into separate legislation.
The bill as introduced by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, would allow local governing bodies in cities or counties that already have liquor-by-the-drink and retail liquor stores to hold a local referendum on whether line could be sold in grocery stores and supermarkets within their jurisdiction.
The bill has now cleared its initial committee hurdles in both the House and Senate, though several remain before floor votes. Similar bills to straightforwardly legalize the sale wine in grocery stores – without the referendum provision – have failed repeatedly over the past five years.
Harwell said she thinks the bill will “continue to gain support” and that her tie-breaking vote may not be needed next week in the full committee. Wednesday’s vote was the first time this year that Harwell has exercised her right to vote on any bill in any committee or subcommittee.
She and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey have both become active advocates of the legislation, which is strongly resisted by lobbyists for the state’s existing liquor stores, which now have exclusive rights to sell wine in Tennessee.
Carr said he believes the bill “is not good for small business.” Current liquor store owners have signed long-term leases and made other investments on the law as it now stands and “we we’re changing the rules in the middle of the game,” said Carr.
Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, acknowledging that he is an opponent of alcohol sales generally, said that allowing wine sales in “convenience stores and big box stores” will make the product more available, “creating a worse problem for us with alcoholism and people driving under the influence.”
But Lundberg said his bill simply allows citizens to make their own decision on the issue in local referenda, in line with votes of past legislatures in 1939 to allow local votes to decide whether liquor package stores are allowed in a city or in 1967 on whether liquor-by-the drink is allowed.
Under the bill, a city council or county commission would have to call a referendum and the first could not occur until November, 2014. If approved in a given vote, supermarkets and convenience stores could then begin selling wine in January, 2015. Lundberg said this will give owners of current liquor stores time to prepare for the competition.
Various proposals to ease rules for existing liquor stores have been floated. They include allowing sale of non-alcohol items and allowing them to be open on Sundays and holidays. Lundberg’s bill, as it stands, would allow wine sales in groceries on Sundays and holidays, though liquor stores would still be closed on those days.
In the subcommittee vote, Harwell was joined in support of the bill by Reps. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas; Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin; Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough; and Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis.
No votes came from Reps. Dale Carr, Floyd, Steve Hall, R-Knoxville; and Larry Miller, D-Memphis.
Gov. Bill Haslam, meanwhile, said Wednesday he is staying neutral on the proposal because his family business, the Pilot Flying J chain of gas stations and truck stops, could become eligible to sell wine on the proposal.
Haslam said this poses “a little bit of a conflict” and “I just thought that probably it’s most appropriate for me to stay out of it.”