A sign in a Kroger supermarket in Nashville urges shoppers to sign up for a group urging lawmakers to change state law that limits wine sales to liquor stores. AP photo.
KINGSPORT — Tennessee state Rep. Matthew Hill announced Friday that pending an agreement, he will resurrect a committee vote on legislation that would allow localities to hold referendums on whether wine should be sold in grocery stores and other retail establishments.
Hill, R-Jonesborough, made the announcement before 200 business leaders and elected officials at a regional chamber legislative breakfast held at the MeadowView Marriott.
He cast the deciding “no” vote as chair of the House Local Government Committee to kill the wine-in-grocery-stores legislation in the last legislative session.
A motion to reconsider the bill is expected to happen when the committee meets on Tuesday, according to Hill.
The legislation is sponsored in the House by state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol. It is backed by the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association but opposed by package stores owners represented by the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association (TWSRA).
Wine in Tennessee currently can’t be sold in grocery stores, but it is in Virginia.
“There’s that wonderful quote where ‘We will sell no wine before it’s time.’ I think, in Tennessee, it’s time,” Lundberg said at the chamber breakfast. “I hope by Monday we have an agreement with all parties to move the legislation forward. ... It’s about letting the folks at the local level determine what they want to do.”
After Lundberg spoke, Hill had a remark about the audience reaction.
“Some of you all were looking at me when Jon was talking ... (and thinking) ‘I wonder if he’s going to say anything.’ ... Well, I am,” Hill asserted. “I am often asked: ‘Why did you vote the way you did?’ I voted ‘no’ because of the process, not the proposed policy. The process on the House side was we were getting ready to change alcohol law in the state of Tennessee for the first time in 70 years. We were getting ready to do that in three minutes and I felt that was wrong.”
Hill said he met Thursday with House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, to talk about the upcoming committee vote.
There was a report days ago that an agreement on the bill might involve allowing grocery stores to sell wine, but also exclude convenience stores and big box retailers like Walmart. That deal appears to be off the table, according to Lundberg. “I think we’re past that,” he said.
TWSRA members insist they’re tightly regulated small business people who would be put out of business if grocers and convenience stores are allowed to sell wine.
But Lundberg hails the legislation as a moneymaker that keeps tax revenue from going across the state line.
“People are not just buying wine. They’re buying everything else,” Lundberg pointed out.
One side issue, meanwhile, has been whether package stores should be allowed to sell high-alcohol content beer, dry goods or other products.
Hill said he doesn’t know if there are enough votes to advance the bill and have a further debate on possible legislative amendments or other bills to change the state’s liquor laws.
“I’ve already been told by one legislator who sits on the committee that he is going to spend the weekend on parliamentary procedure to kill the bill,” Hill said. “People are waiting to see if the groups come together and what the final product will look like.”
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who supports the bill, said it will be reconsidered by the state Senate on Thursday.
“I think we have the votes to pass it on the (Senate) floor, and we will go from there,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville.
For more, go to www.capitol.tn.gov. The bill’s number is HB 610.