NASHVILLE — Speaker Beth Harwell, in casting the deciding vote Wednesday, rescued a bill from defeat in a House subcommittee that would allow wine sales in supermarkets.
As leader of the chamber, the Nashville Republican is allowed to vote in any committee, but rarely does. But her votes first halted an effort to punt the bill until July 2014 and later broke a tie to advance the measure to the full House Local Committee.
"I was pretty confident that my vote was going to be necessary," Harwell said after the vote. "That is a privilege the speaker has, and I don't abuse it and don't use it often, but I thought today was a good time."
Harwell's vote unleashed groans among liquor store owners and other opponents gathered in the hallway outside the committee room, with one man running down the hallway of the press corps suite and slamming his jacket against the stairs.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol would allow cities and counties to hold referendums on whether to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores. The companion bill also cleared its first Senate committee last week by a single vote.
Under current state law, supermarkets can't sell any alcohol stronger than beer, while package stores can't sell anything other than wine, liquor and lottery tickets.
Lundberg and Harwell met with a representative of the liquor stores association after the vote in hopes of hammering out a compromise with the group that has previously been unwilling to negotiate over the matter.
"From what I understand they did not expect me to be happy this afternoon," Lundberg said. "So I think they are going to be on the phone talking today. And have I just told them my door is open."
But Chip Christianson, owner of J. Barleycorn's package store in Nashville and former president of the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, did not appear to be in a conciliatory mood after the vote.
"The fact is it's a dangerous product, and it's in a very controlled environment," he told reporters after the vote. "It's been controlled since prohibition; it's worked very well in this state."
Trust me, we are opening a can of worms that's going to cause some serious problems," he said.
There are nearly 600 liquor stores in the state, and less than half of them belong to the association, which has been strenuously fighting the bill alongside the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Tennessee. The beer industry association, which has also traditionally opposed the change, has taken a lower profile in the debate this year.
Justin Owen, president of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free market think tank, applauded the advance of the bill in both chambers of the General Assembly.
"The vast majority of states already sell wine in grocery stores, and it's not had this catastrophic result," Owen said. "Ultimately, the liquor stores have a monopoly over the product now, and that's bad."