Senate approves WIGS fix — with ‘protectionism’

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Efforts to restrict the number of liquor stores that can be owned in Tennessee drew vocal opposition from a Republican lawmaker Monday, who said it is contrary to GOP principles and suggested that supporters may have been “bought and paid for” by lobbying groups.

Republican Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains derided the bill as “pure, cold, hard protectionism” during a Senate floor debate.

“We didn’t tell CVS and Walgreens that they can’t come in and protect the mom-and-pop pharmacies,” he said. “If you’re for protectionism, you’re probably not a Republican.”

“If you’re voting for this bill because some lobbyist contributed heavily to your campaign, you’re bought and paid for,” Niceley said.

The chamber defeated Niceley’s effort to strip the liquor store cap out of the bill despite support from Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.

The bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro (SB2094) is mostly aimed at allowing grocery stores to begin obtaining licenses and stocking their shelves ahead of the July 1 date that they will be able to sell wine. But a provision to limit liquor store owners to two statewide licenses has sharply divided Republicans in both the House and Senate.

Tennessee had a one-store cap in place until lawmakers voted to remove that restriction as part of the 2014 supermarket wine law. Ketron said the move to restore the cap came about after the state attorney general found a ban on out-of-state liquor store ownership was unconstitutional.

“If you want to talk about free market, I’m one of the strongest free-market people in here,” Ketron said. “However, when it comes to alcohol, this is a highly regulated industry.”

Ketron said imposing the ownership limits “allows the state to gauge whether there is effective control in the management of the stores by the out-of-state ownership.”

The House Finance Committee last week voted 10-9 to remove the liquor store cap from its version of the bill, and the sponsor promptly withdrew the entire bill from consideration. The 21-6 passage of the Senate bill with the liquor store cap intact may lead to efforts to revive the House version.

Retailer Total Wine & More has said that the legislation is aimed at preventing the Maryland-based company from opening several stores in the state.

“In advocating for this legislation, Tennessee’s liquor lobby continues its decades-long quest to hold consumers hostage,” Edward Cooper, a vice president of Total Wine & More said in an email after the Senate vote.

Cooper said that the company would consider legal action if the bill moves forward.

Note: Rick Locker has written a story elaborating somewhat on why the WIGS fix bill is needed to allow wine sales to actually begin on July 1 instead of later.