State Lawmakers To Decide Fate Of Supermarket Wine - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

State Lawmakers To Decide Fate Of Supermarket Wine

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The issue of wine sales in supermarkets is back in front of state lawmakers this week. The issue has made it's way to Capitol Hill for at least five years, and has failed to get past a committee.

This time, supporters of selling wine in grocery stores are trying a different approach. The bill they've filed would let voters decide in local referendums.  

Monday afternoon in the Senate's State and Local Government Committee each side was allowed to give their best pitch.  

"A yes vote will not put wine on the shelves of food stores," said Senator Bill Ketron, Republican from Murfreesboro. "Instead a yes vote will allow the public, your constituents, to decide whether they want to purchase wine."

The legislation would let counties and cities where a liquor store can do business or a restaurant can sell liquor by the drink, voters can call for a referendum to put wine in grocery stores on the ballot.

The authors of the bill have cited recent polls by MTSU and Vanderbilt that show overwhelming support to let grocery stores sell wine.  Officials with Kroger said wine is one of the biggest requested items that they can't sell, but liquor stores still have big concerns about losing money.  

One owner said like North Carolina, Tennessee will have a bigger problem with alcoholism.

"In the 15 years they've been tracking this, North Carolina has had a 89-percent increase in their binge drinkers and a 75-percent increase in their heavy drinkers," said Liquor Store owner Bard Quillman.  "Therefore, in order to compete with North Carolina, we're going to have to have 279,229 Tennesseans become binge drinkers."

Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, told the panel that he fears putting the wine measure before voters would have consequences similar to a recent campaign over allowing liquor-by-the drink sales in Pigeon Forge.

"Right now Pigeon Forge is polarized, families torn apartment, friendships ruined, because in our small communities they are battling over this liquor-by-the drink issue," he said. "And the same thing is going to happen."

Davis said lawmakers should stop short of putting more liquor issues on the ballot on the basis of convenience.

"We don't know where this idea of convenience is going to lead us, we don't know what the next step is," he said. "Others before you have not put it at the feet of the voters to have wine in liquor stores and I beg of you not to take it there."

Republican Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma, who declined to give her position on the bill after the meeting, told Davis that several issues will affect her decision.

"As a teetotaling Baptist myself, I can assure that my vote will not be based on convenience," she said. "It's going to be based on Tennesseans and what I'm hearing from my constituents in my district."

Steve Smith, president and CEO of the Food City chain of supermarkets dismissed arguments by liquor store owners that their businesses would be hurt by expanded wine sales.

"I'll tell you how it will affect their business," he told the panel. "They'll learn to compete as our company has done over the years, and as many other successful grocers in this state have done," he said.

Smith said the two Food City stores with the highest wine sales in Virginia are located near the Tennessee state lane, showing that shoppers are spending their money -- and sales taxes -- out of state.

"You'd be kidding yourself if you didn't recognize that Tennessee isn't missing out on sales tax dollars because wine is being sold in Virginia and not in Tennessee," he said.

Victoria Regens called the supermarket wine sales a matter of convenience for busy mothers juggling errands and other parenting duties. She said she was surprised to have to go to a liquor store to buy wine when she moved from Arizona to Nashville five years ago.

"I was amazed that that is not a convenience that is afforded in Tennessee, and I have to tell you I couldn't understand why," she said. "I can also tell you in Arizona there's no shortage of wine stores, independent stores, specialty stores (or) box chains."

The Senate committee vote on the legislation is set for Tuesday, and many expect the vote to be close. The committee chairman predicts a 5-to-4 vote, but he doesn't know which side will prevail.  A vote on the House side is also expected on Tuesday.

(The Associated Press Contributed To This Report.)

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