State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, was roughly halfway through an hourlong town hall meeting at Johnson City’s Memorial Park Community Center Wednesday when he leaned an elbow on the podium and spoke into the microphone: “Anyone want to talk about wine in supermarkets? I do.”
Hill was heavily criticized by proponents of the bill in March for voting for an earlier version of the legislation in a subcommittee, only to cast the key vote against the measure when it reached the House Local Government Committee, which he chairs.
The topic has been spread across the news pages and airwaves since that time, but Hill has consistently provided the same reasoning for doing what he did. This time, it was at a very casual box lunch affair at which about a dozen people attended.
“The legislation was going to make the largest change in alcohol law in the state in the past 70 years,” he said without solicitation. “I felt what happened that day in committee was wrong. The bill was going to go forward with what I thought was insufficient debate. That’s why I voted ‘no.’ ”
Current law keeps supermarkets and convenience stores from selling beer stronger than 5 percent by weight, which is the equivalent of about 6.5 percent in the more common measure of alcohol by volume. Anything stronger can only be sold in liquor stores, which aren’t allowed to sell any items beyond booze and lottery tickets.
The original proposal simply called for local referendums and voters to make the call on whether to allow grocery stores to sell wine. But while the Senate version of the bill was on hold, it was amended several times to add provisions to help make up for liquor stores losing their exclusive right to sell wine.
The measure would also have allowed liquor stores to begin selling items like snacks, beer and ice in 2014, regardless of whether a city or county had approved supermarket wine sales.
“I couldn’t tell where you really are on the wine in grocery store issue — where do you stand,” asked Unicoi resident Lester Wilson.
“The bill will probably change several times,” Hill said. “I’m for free enterprise. But not just for grocery stores; for everybody. I’m not for government arbitrarily picking winners and losers.”
The Johnson City Press asked Hill why, since he was committee chair, he could not find a way to facilitate further debate before the vote.
“Once a motion is made, I cannot force the committee to do anything,” he said. “Procedurally, state law does not allow it.”
Hill also hit on a few issues coming up when the General Assembly convenes Tuesday, including the fact the state will start the year with a roughly $100 million shortfall.
“We have to find places to cut, and that’s going to be at the top of the list,” he said. “I serve on the Finance Committee, so I’ll be on the front lines.”
He also touched on the Hall Income Tax, a tax on capital gains that has proven to be “the biggest hindrances to people moving to and retiring in Tennessee.” He also reminded attendees that Tennessee had the lowest individual debt in the nation.
Hill also complimented the Legislature.
“We pay what’s owed,” he said. “We’ve had Republican leadership and Democratic leadership, but we remain fiscally conservative.”
Hill said he was determined not to let the upcoming session linger on.
“There’s no reason we should still be in session in June,” he said. “This year’s session should be swift, largely because it’s an election year.”