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Matthew Hill says he may reverse course and support supermarket wine in Tennessee

ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press • Sep 27, 2013 at 11:45 AM

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee House chairman who cast a deciding vote against a bill seeking to allow supermarket wine sales in the state said Thursday that he's willing to reconsider the measure next session.

State Rep. Matthew Hill, a Jonesborough Republican who chairs the House Local Government Committee, told The Associated Press that he is willing to take the parliamentary steps needed to reverse the vote as long as proponents commit to a full debate about the bill and proposals to amend the measure.

"I don't want to start all over," Hill said. "I think the prudent thing to do is to start from where we are right now."

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 full committee.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, a fellow Republican, on Wednesday described the bill's failure in the House as a "debacle," and predicted that the measure will pass the Legislature next year.

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 votes on whether to allow grocery stores to sell wine. But the Senate version of the bill awaiting a full floor vote was amended several times to add provisions to help make up for liquor stores losing their exclusive right to sell wine. They would include allowing package stores to be open on Sundays and holidays, and linking supermarket wine sales to the hours they are currently allowed to sell beer.

The measure would also allow 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.

Hill said he voted against the bill in his committee because House sponsors had appeared unwilling to debate similar changes to the Senate bill.

The change has been opposed by liquor wholesalers and the package store owners, who argue that it would upset their existing business models and make high-proof alcohol more available to minors. But opinion polls show wide support for allowing wine to be stocked in supermarket shelves.

Hill said he has heard from more liquor store around the state willing to negotiate over the measure because "they realize that this is not a matter of if, but when" lawmakers approve the supermarket wine bill.

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