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Could the wine battle be moving ahead? Splinter legislation takes shape in Nashville

Nathan Baker • Jan 29, 2014 at 11:53 AM

Two wine bills diverged in the state Capitol Tuesday, and that made all the difference for the effort to allow wine sales in food stores.

The highly anticipated wine in grocery stores bill was split into two separate bills by House sponsor Jon Lundberg of Bristol and sent on different paths through the committee process on their way to a full floor vote.

Hours before the bill, which aims to set up a referendum process to allow wine sales in supermarkets, convenience stores and big box retailers that sell food, was due for an appearance in the House Local Government Committee, the State Government Committee took up a similar piece of legislation.

In State Government, lawmakers amended a caption bill, commonly used by the legislature as a placeholder for other legislation, to create a certification process for retail food stores wishing to sell wine.

In the newly amended bill, a retail food store was defined as a business with at least 2,000 square feet of retail space that derives at least 20 percent of its sales taxable sale from food and food ingredients.

The state’s liquor stores were also given concessions, the product of hours of negotiating between lobbyists and legislators, allowing them to sell a list of alcohol-related items, including snack foods, beer, coolers, ice, party supplies, branded T-shirts and cigarettes.

Some legislators were surprised to receive the 29-page amendment at approximately 9:30 last night, the day before the bill’s consideration.

“I was in shock, it’s like they railroaded this thing through,” Elizabethton Rep. Kent Williams, a member of the State Government Committee said Tuesday morning. “Nobody else realized it was a caption bill, and I don’t think anybody knew this was going to be a full-blown wine bill.”

When the morning committee recessed, then picked the discussion up later in the evening, Williams continued to voice his opposition.

The independent said he feared allowing thousands more retailers to sell wine would make it easier for minors to get their hands on alcohol and could increase the number of drunken driving deaths in the state.

“I’m not a hypocrite, I drink a cold beer, and I love a cold beer, but I don’t want my grandchildren to go into a grocery store and have that temptation of stealing a bottle of wine or a bottle of Jack Daniels,” Williams said.

At noon, the Local Government Committee was presented with a stripped down amendment to the original bill that only contained language setting up local referendums, a hard proposition for many legislators to vote against.

Some of the staunch alcohol opponents on the committee showed up to the meeting ready to grill Lundberg on the business impact of the bill, but were directed by the Bristol Republican to discussion on only the referendum aspect.

“How would you like for your state government to come up and say in the interest of prudence they’re going to give your business to an industry you can’t compete with?” Chattanooga Republican Richard Floyd asked. “If I could, I’d do away with every ounce of alcohol in the state of Tennessee.”

But Rep. Vince Dean, of East Ridge, who voted against the bill last session when it failed in the committee, said removing the alcohol question from the law made it easier for him to support it.

“Typically, I vote against liquor bills,” Dean said. “Having read the amendment, I think I understand that it’s not so much a liquor bill as it is a local decision bill. We’re not telling locals what they can or can’t do, we’re allowing them to make the decision, that’s why I’m in support of it.”

Both bills eventually passed out of the committees with ease, headed now for the Finance, Ways & Means Committee.

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, chair of the Local Government Committee, championed his affirmative vote and the two hours of debate on the bill in his committee.

“As I have said from the beginning, I take the legislative process very seriously and believe our committee system is in place to allow lawmakers on both sides of an issue the opportunity to thoroughly debate ideas in an open and transparent environment,” Hill said in an emailed statement. “Fortunately, this time around, both sides had ample time to present their arguments and were able to engage in healthy, well-rounded, and lively debate. This is why, today, I decided to vote in favor of this bill — a bill I believe gives a voice to the people of our state to decide what is best for their local communities.”

Legislation to allow wine sales in grocery stores has been proposed for the last six consecutive years and has been a topic in the General Assembly for at least a dozen.

In the last session, the bill was expected to have an easy passage, but deciding Hill’s “no” vote in the committee he chairs caused it to stall.

Hill said his only intent in allowing the bill to fail was to facilitate more debate on the broad alcohol legislation.

The bill has support of both House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who say they are confident it will pass this year.

The companion bill in the Senate, after passing through the appropriate committees last session, is expected for a full vote soon, but will have to be reconciled with the House’s version.

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