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Supporters, foes of wine bill surprised by committee vote

Madison Mathews • Mar 14, 2013 at 3:40 PM

While reactions were split on both sides of the issue regarding wine in grocery stores, supporters and opponents of the bill were surprised when the legislation failed Tuesday in the state House of Representatives in Nashville.

The House Local Government Committee voted 8-7 to reject advancing a bill that would have allowed cities and counties to hold referendums on whether to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores.

“I think the best word to describe it is disappointing. We had an opportunity to let Tennesseans vote whether they wanted wine in supermarkets. The committee didn’t grant them that privilege, and I think that’s unfortunate and a little confusing and disheartening,” said Food City President and CEO Steve Smith.

After seeing the measure progress through two committees last week, the proposal hit a roadblock after a series of amendments were offered by supporters and opponents of the bill, which was sponsored by state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, and state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro.

Those changes included whether the bill should allow liquor stores to sell beer, and which hours wine would be available for sale.

Despite voting in favor of the bill in subcommittee, Chairman Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, cast the deciding vote against the bill.

According to The Associated Press, Hill told reporters Tuesday he was frustrated that proponents ended the debate before any amendments could be discussed.

“The reasoning behind my vote is simple: We must allow the committee system the opportunity to do its job — that is, we must give all bills that come before the legislature a fair, open and honest hearing. This is what our constituents expect and what voters of this state deserve,” Hill said Wednesday in a statement.

“When a bill comes before my committee, I cannot in good faith send a bill further along in the process unless I am confident both sides of the issue have had ample time to present their arguments. ... As a representative of the people of Washington County, I simply refuse to allow the thoughtful approach of hearing all sides of an issue turn into a meaningless and unresponsive bureaucratic process like so many things in our nation’s capital have unfortunately become.”

Smith said he was surprised the bill failed after gaining so much traction, including support from the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association — a group that has been a staunch opponent of the bill in the past.

“We saw that as a big momentum toward our initiative and ... we were moving toward a position where we were going to be able to sit down with folks from the package stores and come up with some good solutions, and I think we still will be able to do that in the future,” he said.

Although the measure failed, Smith said he would welcome a reconsideration of the bill in the future since there seemed to be so much support behind it.

“We came farther this year than we’ve ever come, and I think that’s a real compliment to folks communicating with their legislators, because we’d never got out of any committees before. The liquor lobby always kept it bottled up,” he said.

Liquor store owners and members of the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association celebrated the bill’s outcome, including One Stop Wines & Liquors owner Phil Scharfstein.

“Of course, I’m very excited about what took place yesterday. ... I appreciate (Hill) taking time to try to fully understand this issue. I know pressure coming from the top from his party was very intense upon him, but I truly appreciate his understanding and wanting to listen to both sides and stopping this bill,” he said.

Scharfstein, a TWSRA board member, said he was pleased the measure failed after it had received support as it went through various committees last week.

Despite the proposal failing, Scharfstein said he’s certain the issue hasn’t gone away for good.

“I’m sure it’s an issue that will be continued to be talked about. I’m positive of that. I celebrate today, but at the same time I’m preparing for tomorrow. I know this will keep coming back over and over, so we will be ready for our next fight again,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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