Legislation that would let grocery stores sell wine started to roll through the state House of Representatives on Tuesday, as supporters sidestepped a hurdle that blocked the bill a year ago.
A pair of House committees approved two separate bills that would lift restrictions on liquor stores and let local governments hold referendums on whether to let supermarkets, big-box retailers and convenience stores in their jurisdictions sell wine.
Shoppers wouldn't begin to see wine on grocery store shelves until July 1, 2016.
The House legislation differs substantially from the Senate's measure, which could come up for a vote as soon as Thursday. If both pass the legislature, they would have to be reconciled before communities could hold their first referendum on wine in grocery stores.
But Tuesday's votes in the House, which supporters won by wide margins, demonstrated the clout behind passage this year. Through a series of complicated maneuvers, House Speaker Beth Harwell and other backers were able to get the legislation out of the committee that sank it a year before and advance a plan that addresses questions about Sunday sales, restrictions on liquor stores and what kinds of wine grocery stores would be permitted to sell.
Harwell, R-Nashville, who rarely betrays emotion in public, cracked a small smile when HB 610 was approved 13-3.
Supporters achieved their goal by splitting wine-in-grocery-stores legislation into two bills. One measure, House Bill 47, was amended to address state liquor laws.
'Locals' can decide
The plan unveiled Tuesday morning and approved later in the day by the House State Government Committee would mandate a 20 percent markup over wholesale prices on wine and prohibit grocery stores from selling on Sundays and from selling "high-gravity" beer, fruit-flavored wine, or wine with more than 18 percent alcohol. Liquor stores, meanwhile, would be allowed to sell other items for the first time, including periodicals, corkscrews, glassware, T-shirts, mixers and snacks.
HB 47 also says grocery stores would not be able to sell wine until July 1, 2016. Those located within 500 feet of a liquor store would have to wait until July 1, 2017, or get the liquor store owner's permission to begin selling wine -- setting up a transition period during which liquor stores could reconsider their business plans.
A second measure, House Bill 610, would establish procedures for local referendums on wine in grocery stores. A year ago, that bill was defeated by a single vote in the House Local Government Committee when Chairman Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, objected to its scope.
On Tuesday, supporters stripped HB 610 to its bare essence and left out liquor regulations, now transferred to HB 47. The shift gave committee members cover to vote for wine referendums without embracing looser liquor laws outright.
"We're letting those locals make their own decision," said state Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge.
Now that measure and HB 47 must go through the House Finance Committee. If they are approved there, the two bills could come up for votes on the House floor sometime in February.
After years of debate, some lawmakers expressed hope that the measure will pass.
"It's not perfect, but it's a start," said state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville. "It gets it moving this thing forward. And I look forward to not having to deal with it again."
Status of the debate
The House has split wine in grocery stores into two bills, HB 47 and HB 610, both of which passed out of committees Tuesday. The measures now must go through the House Finance Committee and its subcommittee. They could reach the House floor sometime in February. The full Senate could vote as soon as Thursday on its wine-in-grocery-stores bill, SB 837. Because it differs widely from the House legislation, lawmakers would have to hash out a compromise measure, most likely through a conference committee.