Grocery store wine sales law seems unlikely

On March 15, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

March 15, 2009

Most Tennessee lawmakers are still undecided about a proposal to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets, a strong indication that the measure is unlikely to be voted on this year, an Associated Press survey has found.

Only 40 percent of the General Assembly’s 132 members say they have made up their minds on the issue.

And of those who have, a narrow majority say they oppose changing the law that now restricts wine sales to liquor stores.

Rep. Harry Tindell, a Knoxville Democrat, is one of the many undecided lawmakers on the issue.

He said he worries that making the change to allow wine in supermarkets would require an overhaul of the liquor distribution system in Tennessee.

“It changes the status quo of the marketplace,” he said. And for that reason, he said, the proposal may not be poised for a vote this session.

“Just like a fine wine, I’m not sure we don’t have to wait before the supermarket issue is ready for serving,” Tindell said.

But House Republican Caucus chairman Glen Casada said he considers it a simple issue.

“It’s good for the economy, it’s the free market,” said Casada, of Franklin. “And it’s just so dadgum convenient.”

Under the state’s rigid three-tier beverage control system, every drop of alcohol is supposed to flow from the manufacturer to a wholesale distributor and finally to the retailers.

Grocery stores can’t sell wine and liquor stores can’t sell beer, and wine purchases over the Internet are banned.

Wholesalers oppose any attempt to change the system.

The liquor and beer industry has accounted for more than $1.2 million in contributions to state candidates and causes since the 2000 election cycle, according to campaign finance data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Supporters have been encouraged that the measure has been getting more attention in recent years. A similar bill was considered last year, and a special legislative committee studied the matter over the summer.

Lawmakers’ support or opposition toward the proposal does not track along party lines. Many said the measure has drawn heavy correspondence from constituents.

“I get more e-mails and phone calls for this than any other bills, and I’ve only recorded one negative response,” said Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet.

“Traditionally I don’t vote for alcohol bills, but I do think I would vote for this one.”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said he has nothing against wine being sold in supermarkets.

But the Collierville Republican said he’s too busy grappling with the state’s budget shortfall to spend enough time on an overhaul of state liquor laws.

“It’s really an issue primarily of timing right now,” Norris said. “I don’t want to go in and piecemeal this thing when we’re distracted with other bigger fish to fry.”

Gov. Phil Bredesen has spoken out in favor of allowing wine sales in supermarkets but has stopped short of making it one of his legislative priorities.

Opponents give several reasons for their stance, including concerns about underage access to wine, the impact a change could have on small businesses and general resistance to making alcohol more easily accessible.

“I’m a teetotaler and I’m not for anything that makes alcohol more accessible,” said Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga.

Supporters note that the dozens of other states that allow wine in supermarkets haven’t seen adverse consequences.

“As people travel to other states, they realize it’s not uncommon,” said Rep. David Shephard, a Dickson Democrat and the main sponsor of the House version of the bill.

“People don’t understand why we have the three-tier system.”

But Rep. Chad Faulkner, a Luttrell Republican, said he wants to keep the current system as it is.

“The three-tier plan is a good plan, it provides for some quality control,” said Faulkner.

“You allow more alcohol, drunken driving is going to go up, arrests are going to go up.”

Several lawmakers noted that current law limits liquor store owners to a single store, which would put them at an unfair disadvantage to large supermarket chains if they were allowed to sell wine.

“These are one of the last few true mom-and-pops left,” House Finance Chairman Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said of liquor stores.

Shephard acknowledged that there’s still much trepidation about making a change, and that it appears unlikely the legislature will vote on the measure this year.

Rep. Curry Todd, a Memphis Democrat and chairman of the State and Local Government Committee — scheduled to hold hearings on the proposal next week, said he remains undecided.

But he said he also wants to comprehensively study the issue before acting.

“It’s more complicated than just allowing you to go in and buy wine in the supermarket,” he said.

“I want to make sure if we’re going to do it that it’s done right.”

In the House, 22 members said they oppose the concept of wine in supermarkets, while 17 said they support it.

Those in favor include nine Republicans and eight Democrats, while opponents included 11 members of each party. Thirty Democrats said they were undecided, as did 29 Republicans.

In the Senate, nine members said oppose the proposal, while six support it. The supporters include three senators from each party, while opponents are five Republicans and four Democrats.

Eleven Republicans and seven Democrats in the Senate said they remain undecided.

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