published Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Tennessee wine in grocery stores bill fails by one vote

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Are you glad the wine in grocery stores bill has been voted down?

NASHVILLE — A bill allowing grocery stores to sell wine failed by one vote in a House committee Tuesday, but a door could open to revive the legislation.

The Local Government Committee rejected the bill on an 8-7 vote, surprising the sponsor, Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who thought he had the votes to move the years-long effort ahead.

Instead, Chairman Matthew Hills, R-Jonesborough, cast a surprise vote against the bill, which would allow local voters to decide through referendums whether grocery stores can sell wine.

Watching Hill's vote was House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, a bill supporter, who muscled the legislation through subcommittee last week with Hill's help.

Also voting against the bill was Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, who earlier joined an effort to prevent Lundberg's initial request to delay the bill, a courtesy usually but not always granted.

But Lunderberg then changed his mind and supported a vote that day.

"I'm glad," said Floyd, of the bill's failure. "I think it may be [dead], but listen, you never, never know around here."

Floyd, who opposes all alcohol expansion bills based on religious convictions and the deaths of friends and their family members because of drunken drivers, said "if I could, I'd do away with alcohol. That's not going to happen."

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, voted for the bill.

With strong support from Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the years-long effort by supermarkets had appeared on the verge of breaking the grip of the iron-triangle comprised of liquor store owners, liquor distributors and beer distributors, who oppose it.

Liquor store owners say the bill is unfair, forcing mom-and-pop businesses to compete against national grocery store chains. Supporters cite polls showing the popularity among voters of having wine in grocery.

Hill later explained he voted against the bill after a proponent, Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, moved to cut off debate. That prevented 10 or 11 amendments, some of which Hill said he supported, from being heard. But Hill left the door open to the bill's return.

"At the very minimum, there would have to be a real agreement that we're going to hear these amendments and have a real discussion," Hill said. "That would be a bare minimum."

Harwell was sitting in committee in case her vote was needed to break a tie, just as she had in subcommittee. Speakers can vote on any committee.

"I'm disappointed because I think the people of this state deserve an opportunity to vote on this issue," she told reporters.

Earlier in the day, Senate Finance Committee members postponed a vote on the bill, which underwent further amendment, to the Senate floor.

Among the changes on the table is whether liquor stores should be allowed to sell beer.

On Monday, the bill got unexpected support from the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association, which abruptly changes its years-long opposition to support the bill.

Liquor stores and distributors remain opposed.

During Tuesday's proceedings, the legendary lobbyist for The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of Tennessee, Tom "Golden Goose" Hensley watched proceedings intently.

Meanwhile, David McMahan, the lobbyist for the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, said he felt "pretty good about" the vote.

"Obviously the committee recognized the concerns with this legislation," he said.

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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