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Nathan Baker

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Quick action may put wine on '14 ballots

March 20th, 2014 9:26 pm by Nathan Baker

Quick action may put wine on '14 ballots

With a scrawl of ink on paper, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam passed the wine-in-grocery-stores bill into law Thursday, making way for bottled wine to be sold in supermarkets, convenience stores and big box retailers across the state.

The passage of the long-proposed bill was heralded as a victory for the lawmakers and lobbyists who supported it through the arduous process, but it will be several years before residents can purchase vino at their local food outlets.

First, the law permits wine sales at the earliest on July 1, 2016, more than two years from now, although Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, hinted after the signing ceremony that the date specified in the law could be amended to be soon in a subsequent session of the General Assembly.

Wine will be available in grocery stores after that date provided that jurisdiction already permits either retail package stores or liquor by the drink and receives a petition containing a number of residents’ signatures equaling at least 10 percent of the number who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election asking to hold a public referendum on the issue.

The referendum will ask voters to check a box signaling that they are either for or against the legal sale of wine in food stores.

If organizers move quickly, the question could be posed on the general election ballot in November. If the required signatures aren’t collected in time, the referendums could be held in April 2015 for Johnson City and August 2016 for Washington County.

Both City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin and County Mayor Dan Eldridge said Thursday they expect valid petitions to come forward in their jurisdictions pushing the question of wine in retail food stores.

“I know that we have at least one individual who is very interested in petitioning to have it,” Van Brocklin said. “I would assume that when that petition comes forward it will get a prompt hearing with the City Commission and we’ll put it out for a referendum.”

Both leaders also said they weren’t sure how a referendum would fare if put forth to the electorate.

“From my standpoint, I would certainly vote to do it,” Van Brocklin said. “But whether or not the general populace feels that way, I really don’t have a clue.”

One a referendum passes, stores in that jurisdiction can begin applying to the state for the new wine sales licenses, but the licenses won’t be granted before July 2016.

If the food store seeking to sell wine is within 500 feet of an existing liquor store, the food retailer must first get permission from the liquor store owner allowing wine sales. If the liquor store owner doesn’t grant the special permission, the food store can’t begin selling wine until July 2017.

Regardless of whether a referendum is held, in municipalities allowing them, liquor retailers can begin selling an expanded list of items, including cigarettes, ice, cups and party items, this July.

Wine and spirits wholesalers (those who sell to retailers) will also be allowed to locate in counties with populations greater than 120,000.

Before the passage of the new law, distributors were limited to cities with populations greater than 100,000, but the new law allows the businesses to expand into the Tri-Cities.

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