A subcommittee has killed a bill to have the House and Senate speakers each appoint a member to the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission — a proposal that had described as a compromise with Gov. Bill Haslam by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron.
The death of SB2095 in the House State Government Subcommittee on Wednesday was followed by the abrupt resignation of ABC Executive Director Keith Bell on Thursday, the day Ketron had scheduled a Senate floor vote on the measure.
Ketron canceled plans for the vote without comment on the Senate floor and could not be reached for comment over the weekend after speculation — and a declaration from a legislative staffer requesting anonymity — that the two events were related.
The Tennessean newspaper reported that Bell gave no reason for his resignation, announced in an email Thursday to legislators and alcoholic beverage industry lobbyists and lawyers. The resignation comes with the ABC gearing up to handle hundreds of new license applications for the sale of wine in grocery stores, as authorized by legislation enacted in 2014 that takes effect July 1 of this year.
Under current law, the governor appoints all three members of the ABC, which regulates the state’s system for the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages. As introduced, the bill would have expanded the number of commission members to seven, letting the governor keep three appointments but giving the speakers of the House and Senate two appointments each. The governor’s appointees would thus become a minority on the panel with legislative appointees holding a 4-3 majority.
In winning unanimous approval of the Senate State and Local Government Committee earlier, Ketron said lawmakers had reached a compromise with the Haslam administration: The commission would be expanded to five members — instead of seven — with House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey each getting one of the new appointments. The governor would thus retain control of a majority on the ABC, but the Legislature would have a voice, he said in the committee presentation.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, brought the proposed compromise before the House subcommittee. The panel’s chairman, Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, immediately questioned why the change was necessary, declaring “nobody has really come to me and discussed it” and suggested that more study was needed before such a move.
Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, added that he was concerned the addition of new members to the ABC board could actually “hinder rather than help” the ABC in dealing with a flood of new applications for licenses — a contrast with Johnson’s brief comments in support of the bill.
Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville, then made a motion that the bill be sent to “summer study,” a legislative euphemism for killing a bill and leaving it to be considered next year. Sanderson promptly declared that Jernigan’s motion was approved by voice vote.
There was otherwise much convoluted maneuvering on alcohol industry legislation last week as most subcommittees closed for the year and most full committees prepared to do so during the coming week.
One point of much contention has been a bill (HB2596) that would block out-of-state companies from owning more than two stores in Tennessee. It appears cleared for final approval on the House floor today (Monday).
A late-developing separate proposal (SB844, as amended) would also require out-of-state companies to keep their shipments into the state housed within a licensed Tennessee liquor wholesalers’ warehouse for at least 24 hours.