I’ve often commented on Tennessee’s antiquated liquor laws. The “wine in grocery stores” bill, which has been bottled up in the state General Assembly for more than six years, is just one example of how confusing those regulations can be.
The continuing debate on changing Tennessee’s existing liquor laws also demonstrates the lengths those who benefit from those regulations will go to protect the status quo.
The good news, however, is that Tennessee is not the only state to have befuddling state liquor laws. Indiana’s laws might even be worst.
Legislators in Indiana have been debating changes to that state’s liquor laws, which are even more eccentric than Tennessee’s. For example, you can’t purchase cold beer in a convenience or grocery store. Under Indiana law, such establishments are only allowed to sell warm beer.
You have to go to a liquor store to buy a cold six-pack of brew.
And forget about buying wine, beer or whiskey on Sunday in Indiana. The Hoosier State prohibits the sale of all alcoholic beverages on Sunday.
As I told you, Indiana’s current liquor laws are pretty backward and, like Tennessee, are weighted heavily in favor of liquor store operators. And as in Tennessee, the liquor lobby is doing all it can to prevent any changes being made to Indiana’s laws.
As a recent editorial in the Indianapolis Star observed:
Officially, it’s supposed to be about deterring potential drunk drivers and attempting to ensure that minors can’t obtain alcohol illegally.
In reality, it’s all about protecting a well-connected special interest — the package liquor store lobby, which has built strong financial and personal ties with key members of the Indiana General Assembly.
Tennessee’s liquor laws prohibit grocery stores from selling wine and forbid liquor stores from selling beer (and oddly enough, ice). If you want to buy a bottle of wine in Tennessee you must go to a so-called package store licensed by the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
For years, consumers have complained that this requirement makes no sense. In neighboring states like North Carolina and Virginia, wine — like beer — can be found on supermarket shelves. Not so in the Volunteer State, where the powerful liquor lobby has pretty much had its way on Capitol Hill.
Earlier this year, it looked as if state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, would finally get his “wine in grocery stores” legislation to the House floor. The bill had escaped a close vote in a subcommittee and was being heard in the state House Local Government Committee when something very curious happened. The chairman of the committee, state Rep. Matthew “Boss” Hill, R-Jonesborough, unexpectedly voted to kill the bill.
As I noted in a column in March, it was going be a close vote anyway, as it was in subcommittee, where House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, exercised her right as speaker to give the bill the “aye” it needed to move on. She was expecting to do the same in the full committee, but that was before Hill surprised everyone and voted with those seeking to scuttle the wine bill.
The Boss later said he was unhappy to see proponents try to ram the legislation through his committee without first hearing the amendments.
It wasn’t long before talk began circulating here and in Nashville that some of his colleagues in the House were insisting an appropriation for the Jackson Theater in Hill’s Jonesborough district be axed from the new state budget (which it was).
Many speculated it was in retaliation for Hill’s wine in grocery stores vote. Others said lawmakers didn’t think it was fair for the governor to single out a restoration project in one legislative district, while turning down equally worthy requests in others.
Around the time of the wine bill debacle, Harwell had named Hill as a new member of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. TACIR studies a number of issues important to municipal leaders, with annexation being one of the most talked about this year.
When TACIR met in June to begin work, the Boss was not present. Hill had been replaced on the panel by state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah. Although there was no official explanation given for the change, word in Nashville was that the move was further fallout from Hill’s wine vote.
The ever-eloquent Hill, however, dismissed this rumor when Press staff writer Gary B. Gray asked him about it last week. The Boss said Carter — a sponsor of a bill to limit annexations — has temporarily replaced him as member of TACIR to help the board make changes to the annexation law.
Once its work is done on the annexation issue, Hill said he will return to TACIR. I’ve never heard of such an arrangement before. It will be interesting to see how it turns out for Hill.
I’m also curious to see what Hill will do if the wine bill comes back for a vote in his committee next year. If his Wikipedia listing is to be believed (you know how those entries can be tampered with), Hill was born in Indiana. If true, perhaps Hill has a deep-rooted fondness for wacky liquor laws.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.