As illustrated recently on matters including pet skunks and limits on liquor store ownership, the pervasive influence of the Tennessee legislative lobbying community often explains how votes go one way, then the other on issues before the General Assembly. But not always.
A bill making Tennessee the 18th state to legalize skunks as pets sailed through the Senate with barely a whiff of opposition. The vote was 27-3. By the time it reached the House floor, however, the Tennessee Veterinary Medical Association, which employs a couple of astute lobbyists and maintains a modestly-funded political action committee, had raised a stink.
The animal doctors declared that there’s no effective rabies vaccination for skunks and — despite contentions from House sponsor Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, that there really is a skunk shot for rabies — the bill flopped. There is no skunk lobby in Tennessee, so the vets, having presented what seems a valid public safety concern, prevailed.
The liquor store limitation got a lot more attention and a lot more lobbying since there was a lot more money involved. Legislators and beverage industry lobbyists had worked out a deal before the session to impose a two-store limit on ownership within a bill to revise various provisions of the 2014 wine-in-grocery stores (WIGS) law to assure that wine sales can actually begin July 1, as most wine-consuming citizens expect.
The ownership limit was obviously aimed at concerns over out-of-state booze peddlers — notably including a Maryland-based outfit called Total Wine and More — coming into Tennessee and competing with in-state folk at multiple locations.
Total Wine and More quickly hired a team of lobbyists who argued, not unreasonably, that the provision flies in the face of free enterprise principles espoused by members of the Republican supermajority. They had a temporary success when a House committee voted to strip the ownership limitation from what is known as the “WIGS fix bill.”
Ah, but the alcoholic beverage industry lobbying teams rallied and, last week, the House panel flip-flopped and the WIGS fix is probably back on track for passage — it’s already cleared the Senate — with the competition limitation clause intact. It does have to jump through a subcommittee hoop that was curiously avoided earlier.
There were a handful of legislators who protested the violation of free enterprise principles. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga fretted that by bowing to the lobbyist deal, Republicans are 1) “doing it the way they (Democrats) always did it and it doesn’t matter who governs” and 2) voters would ultimately resent such a thing. At the national level, McCormick suggested, the rebellion of Republican voters against the GOP establishment in the presidential primaries shows people “have figured it out,” and they will do so at the state level, too.
He’s probably correct about No. 1. Today’s lobbyists are mostly Republicans; in the days of Democratic dominance, they were mostly Democrats. A few have shifted professed allegiance to go with the flow.
But then and now, good lobbying has often triumphed over political principle. One anti-competition example is the 2014 WIGS bill itself, which includes a provision mandating that the retail price of wine for consumers must be at least 20 percent more than the wholesale price — rather like the minimum profit on milk sales that was mandated back in Democratic days.
No. 2 is a more debatable proposition. It’s hard to envision Tennessee wine sippers, or free-enterprise advocates for that matter, rising up in outrage at a two-store limit on retail outlets. Fortunately or unfortunately, such things seem to bring no more than a shake of the head or a shoulder shrug from most folks — about the same as keeping skunks for pets.
That’s a contrast to social issues such as abortion, immigration, gun rights, religion and such that get people into mad mode. Good lobbyists working for money — excepting those for various issue advocacy organizations — avoid such things the same way as they’d avoid a mosquito carrying the Zika virus. The WIGS fix is thus a bit of an aberration where one side could use principle to advance its goal.
Usually, lobbying is all about business — it’s not personal and it’s not political philosophy.
Note: This is a slightly expanded version of a column written for the News Sentinel. The published version is HERE.