Wine in grocery stores bill survives critical House vote

4:02 PM, Mar 6, 2013   |    comments
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By Chas Sisk | The Tennessean

Legislation that would let voters decide whether to allow wine in grocery stores survived a critical vote Wednesday after House Speaker Beth Harwell threw her full weight behind the measure.

House Bill 610 was approved by the House Local Government Subcommittee on a 5-4 vote, with Harwell taking the rare step of breaking the tie. Harwell also cast the decisive vote to defeat an earlier motion that would killed the bill.

Harwell told reporters that the vote would prompt opponents of the bill to negotiate a compromise with grocery stores.

"It's time for folks to come to the table and make this a good piece of legislation for everyone," Harwell said. "It was important for us to show movement here in the House."

The vote sends the bill to the House Local Goverrnment Committee, the subcommittee's parent. Companion legislation faces a vote in the Senate Finance Committee before heading to the full Senate.

The committee room again was packed for Wednesday's vote shortly after noon, but this time, opponents moved swiftly to try to defeat the measure.

The first lawmaker to speak, state Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, immediately made a motion to delay the bill until the summer of 2014. Carr said he was concerned about many technical issues surrounding the bill, such as whether grocery stores would be allowed to sell wine on Sunday and at times when liquor stores are closed.

"I really feel like this is not good for small business," he said. "I'm not comfortable with voting on this legislation."

The motion forced subcommittee's eight members to show their cards. A tie would have bottled the bill up in committee, making Harwell's decision to attend the meeting significant.

"I think she realizes this was not just the vote. This is an important issue," said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol. "I knew it was going to be close."

Legislation that would let grocery stores sell wine has been in the works for decades, with the latest push beginning with a bill filed in 2007. But each year the effort has foundered in committee, often without an official vote being recorded.

Liquor store owners and distributors have argued that it would be unfair to subject them to competition with bigger retailers when they face strict rules on what they can sell. They also say they are better suited to control distribution of higher-proof alcohol.

Proponents of wine-in-grocery stores legislation have said repeatedly that they expect progress on the bill to force liquor businesses to compromises, such as lifting those restrictions. Immediately after the vote, lobbyists for the liquor industry met with Lundberg, Harwell and other backers to discuss the situation.

"They (opponents) did not expect me to be happy this afternoon," said Lundberg. "So they are going to be on the phone talking to their members all of today. I've just told them my door is open."

Contact Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or Ask him a question on Twitter @chassisk.

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Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- House Speaker Beth Harwell has rescued a bill to allow supermarket wine sales by casting the deciding vote in a subcommittee where the measure faced defeat.

Harwell, a Nashville Republican, is allowed to cast a vote in any committee, but rarely does so. But she sat in on the House Local Government Subcommittee on Wednesday and angered liquor store owners gathered in the hallway by casting a deciding vote against an attempt to put the bill off until July 2014.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol would allow cities and counties to hold referendums on whether to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores.

The companion bill last week also cleared its first Senate committee last week by a single vote.

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