published Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Tennessee House tables wine sales in groceries

NASHVILLE — A bill aimed at letting grocery stores sell wine died for the fifth straight year Wednesday as powerful liquor store owners and distributors mounted a full-court press against the measure in a House panel.

Acting on a motion by former Speaker Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton, the House State and Local Government Subcommittee on a voice vote put off the bill until July 4, 2012, effectively killing it until next year.

The move came after legislative opponents voted down a compromise amendment that would have let voters decide in local referendums whether grocery stores can sell wine.

During his argument in favor of the measure, Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, the bill’s sponsor, noted that a Costco store decided to locate in Fort Oglethorpe instead of Chattanooga because Georgia laws allow the company to sell wine.

“If you defeat this amendment, what you are saying is, ‘No, I do not want the people in my district to vote; no, I do not want the people in my city, my county, to have the opportunity,’” Lundberg said. “You’re saying you don’t trust the people in your district to make the right decision.”

Earlier, State and Local Government Committee Chairman Curry Todd, R-Collierville, sharply criticized studies and a legislative analysis that proponents like Lundberg said show the bill would generate new revenue and jobs.

“Don’t give me that,” Todd snapped at Lundberg. “I don’t think it’s going to bring jobs and money. I disagree with you. Folks in the grocery business are not going to hire new people.”

The amendment was tabled on a 5-3 vote with three Southeast Tennessee lawmakers — House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga; Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga; and Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Tracy City, voting against tabling the motion.

Cobb told the committee he supported the idea of letting people vote on the issue but would vote against the bill, which he did on the voice vote.

Afterward, Jarron Springer, executive director of the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association, said grocers won’t give up and will be back next year.

Grocers slogan on the bill has been, “Why not wine?”

But following the vote, Tom “Golden Goose” Hensley, the veteran lobbyist for the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of Tennessee, offered this observation: “No wine before its time.”

In other action Wednesday:

* Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper says in an opinion released Wednesday that courts would “likely” rule as unconstitutional a proposed law that requires voters to present qualified photo identification before casting their ballots.

The problem, Cooper says in his seven-page opinion, is the bill makes no provision for free government photo IDs, such as a driver’s license. Courts would probably interpret that as a “poll tax” that “unduly burdens” those who cannot afford such ID, Cooper wrote.

Cooper said it probably would violate the U.S. Constitution’s 24th Amendment with respect to federal elections and the Equal Protection Clause with regard to state and local elections.

In addition, he said, a state court would find it also violates the Tennessee Constitution because of a provision that confers protections similar to the Equal Protection Clause.

House and Senate Democratic leaders sought the opinion on the Republican-backed bill, which passed the GOP-controlled Senate and is awaiting action in the House. Senate Republicans have allowed a Democratic bill that requires the Safety Department to provide photo ID for free to those who sign affidavits saying they cannot afford the fee.

The bill’s House sponsor, Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, said she has been working on ways to offset the state’s costs for providing free ID to certain groups. But she said intends to press her bill today and leave financial aid aspects to other bills because the cost would block her bill.

* Efforts by Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments to let them post notices about meetings, bid solicitations and zoning on their websites instead of in the Chattanooga Times Free Press advanced in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on a voice vote.

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, said the bill “will save the local governments quite a bit of money.”

Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, said in his county, “there is very little Internet access.” But Dean said Hamilton County has “probably the fastest Internet access in the state of Tennessee” through EPB’s broadband offerings.

EPB does not serve all households locally, competing with Comcast and AT&T.

Dean noted that for those with no Internet access, local governments would be required to provide a copy of meetings to people “free of charge.”

“How would they know it if they didn’t have the Internet?” Bass asked.

Replied Dean: “Trust me, in my city everybody knows when the council meetings are.”

Speaking later, Frank Gibson with the Tennessee Coalition for Local Government, said a study last year by Connected Tennessee, which promotes broadband Internet access, shows 79 percent of households had a computer. Only 64 percent have broadband, which makes it easier to conduct Internet searches, he said.

Only 30 percent of households said they looked at a local government website where information about meetings, bids for goods and services as well as zoning information would be provided, Gibson said. Elderly and poorer people would use them even less. That compares to 65 percent who say they get information from newspaper websites.

The bill, he argued, “lets the government control whatever information they provide” to citizens.

Dean said he began moving the bill after receiving a call from Chattanooga’s lobbyist, Matt Lea. Originally, Dean said, he thought Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, would begin moving the bill. But there was an apparent “miscommunication,” he said.

Dean questioned whether the Times Free Press’ circulation hits 79 percent. He said “more people get the Internet than get the daily paper. Is that what you’re telling me?”

“I think that a large majority of people who are interested in projects that would be bid, a large majority of people who are interested in contracts who are let out, I think a majority of them are already to the website,” he said.

He said in his own work outside the legislature, he typically looks at government websites rather than at newspapers. Most people get information about zoning from signs posted in neighborhoods.

* Efforts to ticket motorists who let their dogs and cats sit in their laps while driving failed in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Last week, the House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, zipped through that chamber on a 72-16 vote.

But senators evidently thought differently. Sen. Stacy Campfield, R-Knoxville, couldn’t even get a motion on his version of the bill, which he affectionately dubbed the “Marmaduke bill” after the big, lovable dog featured in a cartoon. As a result, the bill failed.

The bill originally banned animals from the front area of the vehicle entirely but was amended to apply solely to the front seat.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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MasterChefLen said...

Since the state politicians are obviously "bought and paid for" by the independent wine and liquor stores, the issue should be put on the ballet for a state wide vote. Tennessee is losing a ton of revenue because many people who live near border states are buying the booze across state lines for better prices. Let the people vote and decide. This way a certain lobby or bible thumpers can't squash the issue in Nashville.

April 14, 2011 at 9:57 p.m.
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