By Sam Stockard | Gannett Tennessee
MURFREESBORO - State Sen. Bill Ketron is ready to pop the cork on another bill allowing the sale of wine in grocery stores, and he is promising to let package stores sell mixers and ice to offset losses.
Past attempts at the legislation never made it out of subcommittees, Ketron said, but in the 2013 General Assembly session, he plans to offer a measure enabling public referendums in the 33 areas that allow liquor by the drink and package stores.
"It's about free enterprise," Ketron said Tuesday at the Chamber of Commerce annual legislative luncheon in Smyrna.
Grocery stores are major employers and put a big chunk of sales tax in state and local coffers, the Murfreesboro Republican said, and he believes they should be able to sell wine.
Ketron said he plans to sit down with the liquor store industry and change rules that stop them from selling mixers and ice, for instance.
"Why should they be restricted to selling only spirits?" he said.
Ketron pointed out that many liquor stores are attached to beer stores, and customers only have to purchase a bottle of booze and then walk next door to buy chasers and ice. Beer often is sold at those stores, as well.
"They're really bending the rules," he said.
Big stores vs. small
Liquor stores, though, aren't ready to toast Ketron's legislation, despite the changes he is proposing.
"It's going to hurt the small businesses. I guarantee it will," said Ed Ferrell, co-owner of Murfreesboro City Limits Liquor & Wine.
Small businesses wouldn't be able to compete with large corporations such as Wal-Mart and Kroger because they would buy in larger bulk, Ferrell said.
If the bill does pass, though, liquor stores should be able to sell the same items as grocery stores, Ferrell said, noting all package store products currently must contain alcohol, though no regular beer can be sold there.
"They're taking the profit away from you, so you ought to be able to make it up somewhere," he said. "Most of the government officials don't care about the little man. All they care about is the big corporations."
Bard Quillman, a member of the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, said he would oppose allowing grocery stores to sell wine even with some of the concessions Ketron is offering.
Quillman, owner of Red Dog Wine and Spirits in Franklin, contends liquor stores would lose 25 to 30 percent of their business, and if they were allowed to sell ice, they'd have do 87 million bags of ice statewide to recoup their investments.
"This issue is generated much more by the industry than customers," Quillman said. "Who in Rutherford County can't have a bottle of wine with dinner tonight."
Rather than overseeing 600 to 650 liquor stores, the state would have to police about 6,000 businesses selling wine, from grocery stores to convenience markets, he said.
Package stores are set up to monitor sales more closely than grocery stores, he noted, explaining liquor stores are allowed only one door in and out. Grocery stores have several entrances, and most of them offer self-checkout, which could enable underage people to buy wine, he said.
Sales would have to increase to 40 million bottles from 20 million to meet projected sales tax revenue increases shown in some studies, Quillman said. That could prove difficult, he contends, because Tennessee ranks among the lowest nationwide in beer and alcohol consumption.
"What we keep asking the legislature is, "Who's going to buy this wine?' " he said.
The fiscal impact of one bill proposed earlier this year was estimated at a total of $10.2 million, including $2.6 million in excise taxes, $5.6 million in state sales tax and $2 million in local sales taxes.