Tennessee currently only allows wine to be sold in liquor stores, and several bills are expected to be filed this year to loosen those restrictions.
The Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday used most of its first meeting of the year to hear from Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission officials on how they would cope with a possible change in the law.
ABC Executive Director Danielle Elks said depending on what shape the wine proposal takes, her agency estimates between 1,000 to 6,000 stores could seek new permits to sell wine.
The ABC requires about one agent for every 100 stores in the state, meaning its staffing level would have to increase with a law change, she said.
“But presuming the license fee stays the same as retail stores, it appears the license fees would cover the costs associated with that,” Elks said.
Former U.S. Sen. Harlan Mathews, a Democrat who represents Middle Tennessee on the three-member commission, said it would be more fair to allow grocery stores to sell wine — and for liquor store to be able to sell beer.
The wine in supermarket proposal has drawn the support of powerful state politicians, ranging from Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey to Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
“I just can’t see the fairness issue of why a grocery store can sell it if liquor stores can’t,” said Ramsey, of Blountville.
Bredesen said the wine proposal will not be part of his administration’s legislative package this year.
“I don’t need to be messing about with that when I have these huge budget issues I’m dealing with,” he said. “But I certainly don’t think it will hurt anything, and I think it provides an enormous convenience for a lot of people.”
Mathews urged lawmakers to look into the rest of Tennessee’s complex and restrictive laws on transporting, selling and distributing alcohol.
“It’s easier get into Fort Knox to steal some gold than it is for somebody who is not part of the system to get into the liquor business,” he said.
Sen. Bill Ketron, the panel’s chairman, agreed.
“Many of our laws go back to Prohibition, and have been on the books and have not changed since 1933,” said Ketron, R-Murfreesboro.
The liquor lobby has opposed any change, citing the damage it would do to existing businesses and because wine would allegedly become more easily available to underage drinkers.
Ketron added that current laws barring liquor store owners from owning more than one business are often broken. “When we know that many owners are skirting the law by getting their cousins, wives or sons or somebody else to open in their name,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a committee member who said he is undecided on the issue, said the wine proposal may be of lesser significance in tough economic conditions.
“It’s a difficult time,” the Collierville Republican said. “Most people are worried about how they are going to put food on the table, let alone wine.”
Sen. Thelma Harper, another committee member, meanwhile said she might prefer a more draconian approach.
“I really wish you could do away with liquor,” said Harper, D-Nashville. “You wouldn’t have to worry about who’s hauling where and you’d have a lot of sober people driving.”