By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The House passed a bill Monday to impose a cap on liquor store ownership in Tennessee, sending the measure that some Republicans derided as contrary to free market principles to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.
The chamber voted 72-16 to pass the measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Curry Todd of Collierville after extensive debate about why the state should protect package store owners from competition.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick argued that the measure is aimed at preventing out-of-state liquor store chains from setting up shop in Tennessee and tried to dissuade members from the claim that limiting ownership would restrict the flow of alcohol in the state.
“We’re not stopping one drop of liquor from pouring,” said McCormick, R-Chattanooga. “What we’re doing is we’re deciding who makes the money off of it.”
Rep. Jon Lundberg was the main House sponsor of the 2014 law allowing wine to be sold in supermarkets that also included a provision eliminating what had been a one-license limit on liquor store ownership. The Bristol Republican urged members not to return to those limits.
“Placing a cap on business in Tennessee is an absolutely horrible policy idea,” Lundberg said.
Haslam has said he opposes the limits on competition among liquor stores, but he is unlikely to veto the measure because his policy has been to defer to the Legislature on the supermarket wine law and its related provisions.
Todd, who pleaded guilty to drunken driving with a loaded handgun in his car after a 2011 traffic stop in a Nashville neighborhood, said his bill was necessary to control what he called a dangerous product.
“As I was in the business of law enforcement, I’ve seen many lives ruined with alcohol and drugs,” he said. “I’ve seen many in jail; I put many in jail myself. I’ve had families that have dealt with this issue — I have, and others. So I know what it does to you.”
Todd also denounced unspecified news accounts for suggesting that he was beholden to special interests.
“I’m not in anybody’s pocket, won’t never be in anybody’s pocket,” Todd declared from the well of the House chamber. “No amount of money can buy me.
“I take that back: I’m only in one person’s pocket,” he said. “And guess who that is? Jesus Christ, my lord and savior, is the only pocket I’ll ever be in. And that’s it.”
Retailer Total Wine & More has said the legislation is aimed at thwarting the Bethesda, Maryland-based company’s plans to open eight stores in the state.
“Customers of ours told us we should come to Tennessee because the business and government environment was free market and embracing of competition between retailers,” Edward Cooper, vice president and spokesman for the company, said in an email after the vote.
“What we’ve found in Tennessee is the exact opposite, a concerted and conspiratorial effort by liquor store retailers, wholesalers and legislators to keep us out,” he said.
Republican Rep. Tilman Goins of Morristown said supporting the measure would be difficult to explain come election season.
“We run every year as Republicans on trying to remove regulation and allow small businesses and the free market to thrive and grow in Tennessee,” Goins said. “This bill and this cap is no different than limiting the number of tire stores that a person can own in this state.”
Rep. William Lamberth of Portland rejected free market arguments made by some of his GOP colleagues. Having local ownership of businesses helps guard against abuse, he said.
“The small little family liquor stores in my district, they know their customers,” Lamberth said. “They are able to monitor their customers and ensure it’s not some underage kid.”
Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden argued that the Tennessee alcohol laws are “absolutely ridiculous,” and the fact that liquor wholesalers and retailers supported the bill decided his position on the measure.
“That’s enough for me to vote ‘no,'” he said.