Liquor store owners embraced while representatives for the grocery store industry huddled over what to do next after a surprise vote in the Tennessee House of Representatives appeared to kill wine-in-supermarkets legislation for the year.
Defying the wishes of Republican leaders, the House Local Government Committee voted 8-7 to bottle up a measure that would have let voters decide through county referendums whether to let local grocery and convenience stores sell wine. The vote appeared to stun even many liquor store owners, who bumped fists and hugged each other outside the committee room as momentum shifted in their direction.
"I'm flabbergasted," said Bard Quillman, owner of Red Dog Wine & Spirits in Franklin and a board member for the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association. "I'm surprised they held a vote."
Wine-in-grocery-stores legislation still has a glimmer of hope, as the lawmaker who cast the decisive vote said he might reconsider if convinced by House Speaker Beth Harwell.
"Whenever she's willing to talk to me again," said state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough. "Which might be awhile."
Some lawmakers have been trying to allow grocery stores to sell wine for decades. The most recent push began with a bill filed in 2007, and the current version of that bill moved further than any has in recent years.
Tuesday's vote capped a day of legislative maneuvering that showed just how narrow the margin for wine-in-grocery-stores legislation has been.
Proponents of the measure, Senate Bill 837, appeared to suffer a setback Tuesday morning when the Senate Finance Committee opted to postpone a vote for one week to discuss loosening restrictions on liquor stores. Those changes included letting liquor store operators own more than one location, allowing them to sell items other than alcohol and lifting restrictions on deals they can cut with wholesalers.
Backers of the bill portrayed the delay as a step forward.
"It's the kind of conversation that's needed to happen," said Jarron Springer, president of the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association. "This is exactly what needed to happen."
But they could not find a silver lining in the House vote a few hours later. With an eye on the developments in the Senate, the bill's House sponsor, state Rep. Jon Lundberg, began by asking committee members for a one-week delay.
The next few minutes were chaotic. Hill supported his request, but members on both sides of the issue voted 12-3 to hold a vote that day. State Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, a supporter of the measure, followed by calling for the vote immediately, before any more debate could be held.
The tactic backfired. A potentially crucial vote on the bill, state Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, had left the meeting room to attend a hearing on the Department of Children's Services next door. (Jones said later she was undecided how she would have voted.)
As Harwell sat by, the committee split 7-7 on whether to send the bill along. That left Hill to cast the deciding vote.
Hill had supported the bill in a subcommittee a week ago. But he said he was unwilling to do so again without having an opportunity to discuss the same sort of amendments that had come up in the Senate.
"They tried to subterfuge it, and that's just not appropriate," Hill said. "A lot of folks won't understand that."
Because he voted for the winning side, Hill theoretically could ask the committee to reconsider its action and resurrect the bill. He said he would talk to Harwell about doing so.
But Harwell appeared to indicate after the vote that she saw the decision as final.
"My goal all along was to at least give it a hearing," she said. "They took a vote, the vote was on the record, and the public knows."
The result was decisive enough for liquor stores to declare victory.
"It's a complicated matter, and the legislature studied it, and they made the right decision," said Chip Christianson, owner of J. Barleycorn's in Nashville, who also serves on the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association's board.
Springer, meanwhile, appeared to concede the result, but only for the time being.
"We're going to continue on," he said. "It's just a matter of time before this happens, and these opportunities will continue to come up. We've moved it further than ever today. What a great year we've had."
How they voted
Joe Carr, R-Lascassas
Vince Dean, R-East Ridge
Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin
Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby
Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville
Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis
Mike Stewart, D-Nashville
Dale Carr, R-Sevierville
Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson
Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga
Steve Hall, R-Knoxville
Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough
Andy Holt, R-Dresden
Larry Miller, D-Memphis
Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna
Sherry Jones, D-Nashville