Wine bill held up in Senate

On April 2, 2013, in News 2013, by Mark Norris

Debate sets framework for next year
April 2, 2013

Wine-in-grocery stores legislation was given another chance Tuesday after what was thought to be the last vote on the matter for the year.

But prospects for its passage in 2013 remain slim.

Members of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee will hold one final vote on a measure that would let voters decide through local referendums whether to let their grocery stores sell wine. Senate Bill 837 will be placed at the end of the committee’s last calendar before they adjourn for the year.

The House Local Government Committee voted down the measure last month, effectively killing the bill for the year in that chamber. House leaders have resisted pressure to revive the legislation.

But supporters of the bill have been working to keep the measure alive in the state Senate in the hope of setting the table for debate on wine-in-grocery stores legislation next year. If the bill passes the Senate Finance Committee this year, it could be taken up on the Senate floor next January, putting pressure on the House to act.

Those plans were dealt what at first appeared to be a decisive blow Tuesday, when committee members split 5-5 on the bill, preventing it from advancing. But within hours, state Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, had joined with the five supporters to request a new vote.

Henry had abstained earlier, saying he objected to a provision that would have let liquor stores open on Sundays. The measure’s sponsor, state Sen. Bill Ketron, agreed to strike the language.

“It’s like momentum in a ballgame,” the Murfreesboro Republican said. “We want momentum for when it comes up in January.”

Already, wine-in-grocery stores has advanced farther in the state legislature this year than many expected before the session began. Lawmakers have been filing bills to permit grocery store wine sales for decades, but until this year, no committee in recent memory had voted for the measure.

The bill has moved ahead by the slenderest of margins, and as it has progressed, senators have used it as a framework to discuss some of the most extensive revisions to Tennessee liquor laws since lawmakers approved sales of liquor by the drink in the late 1960s.

“I think there’s been huge strides,” said Jarron Springer, president of the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association. “Overall, it’s a very positive year, but it’s a result-driven world. Ultimately, we want to see this pass.”

In addition to Sunday sales, they have considered lifting restrictions on what liquor stores can sell. Another bill in the legislature would let liquor stores own more than one location.

The concessions have not been enough to bring liquor store owners to the table. But they signal progress, said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Memphis.

“We should go ahead and take some definitive action, to send a signal to our constituents that we value their input,” he said. “This may not be completely, precisely correct, yet, but I think it’s getting there.”

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