Lawmakers consider supermarket wine sales

On February 11, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

By ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press, KnoxNews.com
February 11, 2009

NASHVILLE – Tennessee lawmakers are wasting little time uncorking a proposal to allow wine sales in supermarkets.

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 stores to be able to sell beer.

Gov. Phil 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 to 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.

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.”

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