By Chas Sisk | The Tennessean
Supporters of a push to let grocery and convenience stores sell wine were handed a major victory Tuesday morning, in a dramatic and close vote in a Senate committee.
The Senate State & Local Government Committee voted 5-4 to send along Senate Bill 837, a measure that would let grocery stores sell wine if local voters approve such sales by referendum. The vote marked the first time wine-in-supermarkets legislation has cleared the Senate committee since the most recent push began in 2007.
State Sen. Reginald Tate cast the decisive vote. The Memphis Democrat unexpectedly voted in favor of the measure just minutes after voting against an amendment offered to the bill.
Tate appeared to have been influenced at the last minute by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, with whom he is close. As the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, discoursed on the merits of voting -- beginning his 15-minute presentation of the bill by discussing the Civil War and working in references to the women's suffrage movement and Ronald Reagan's Berlin speech -- Tate was absent from the committee room.
Although it was unclear exactly whom he had met with, Jarron Springer, president of the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association, pointedly thanked Ramsey for lining up the five votes needed to get the bill out of committee.
"Ron Ramsey was a leader in this," he said. "He knows that the people need a right to vote in this, and they need the opportunity to be heard."
Grocery stores have been trying to win approval to sell wine for decades, but the most recent push began with legislation filed six years ago. They contend that Tennessee's alcohol laws protect liquor stores from competition and depress wine sales by making them inconvenient.
Opponents of the bill say Tennessee's restrictions curb alcoholism and that liquor stores are the best venues for selling wine.
The vote is the first in the Senate in recent years, as lobbyists have previously succeeded in killing the bill without a committee vote in that chamber. Proponents have hoped a successful vote in committee would spur liquor stores to seek a compromise on the issue.
But Chip Christianson, vice president of the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, said after the vote that he does not believe liquor store owners are in a mood to bargain.
"I don't know about any negotiating table," he said. "We don't have any interest in that. We've contended all along, we've explained that that's not our job. Our job is to sell high-proof alcohol and to control the environment greatly."
The measure still has to clear the Senate Finance Committee before it can go to a vote before the full Senate. Companion legislation is also pending in the state House of Representatives, where the Local Government Committee is scheduled to hear testimony today.
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By ERIK SCHELZIG
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- A proposal to allow wine to be sold in Tennessee supermarkets and convenience stores has scored its first legislative victory after years of frustration.
The Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday voted 5-4 to advance the bill. The measure would allow cities and counties to hold referendums next year to decide whether to expand wine sales beyond the state's 600 licensed liquor stores.
The proposal has the support of two of the heaviest hitters in the Legislature in Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville and House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville. Statewide public opinion polls have shown strong support for supermarket wine sales.
The measure would have to be approved by the Senate Finance Committee before heading for a full floor vote.