The House Local Government Committee voted 13-3 to pass a bill setting up local referendums for wine in grocery stores.
The measure, House Bill 610, will serve as a companion to HB 47, which was amended earlier today in a separate committee. That committee will meet again late this afternoon in a critical vote that could decide the fate of wine in grocery stores for the year.
The complicated tactical manuevering moved wine in grocery stores much closer to the House floor. A year ago, the Local Government Committee defeated wine in grocery stores legislation by a single vote as House Speaker Beth Harwell watched helplessly.
As it became clear that the committee would approve HB 610 this year, Harwell cracked a small smile.
The vote came after the Local Government Committee stripped away all but one aspect of the wine-in-grocery stores bill — provisions that set up the referendums in which voters would decide whether to let grocery stores sell wine. The amendment effectively transferred other aspects of the debate, including what liquor stores can sell and when wine would be sold, over to HB 47.
Some opponents said they were outraged to cede control of the debate, but other lawmakers who voted against HB 610 a year ago said they could not vote against referendums.
"This is a local decision bill," said state Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge. "We're letting those locals make their own decision, and that's why I'm in support of this amendment."
Approval for wine-in-grocery stores referendums was an important hurdle to clear, but the legislation has not crossed the finish line yet. At 4:30 today, the House State Government Committee will reconvene to take up HB 47.
If it passes, the two bills would go to the House Finance Committee and then to the House floor. Wine-in-grocery stores legislation also would have to be reconciled to the Senate version, which is up for a vote on the Senate floor Thursday morning.
Tennessee lawmakers took up a new measure that would allow wine-in-grocery stores but prohibit them from selling on Sundays.
An amendment unveiled Tuesday morning also would let supermarkets, big-box stores and any convenience store larger than 2,000 square feet sell wine as early as July 2016, provided voters agree in a referendum.
The amendment would lift restrictions on liquor stores on what they can sell, and it would bar grocery stores from selling "high-gravity" beer. The measure would set up a one-year transition period during which liquor stores located within 500 feet of a grocery store effectively would have a veto over whether the grocery store could sell wine.
Backers of wine-in-grocery stores attached the amendment to House Bill 47, switching tracks in a bid to strengthen their hand in what remains a difficult legislative battle. The amendment was hammered out late Monday night and released Tuesday at a meeting of the House State Government Committee.
Later today, the House Local Government Committee is scheduled to take up a separate measure, House Bill 610, that also deals with wine in grocery stores. HB 610 was defeated in that committee a year ago by a single vote.
House Speaker Beth Harwell was on hand Tuesday morning as the amendment was distributed. Harwell, R-Nashville, has made passing wine-in-grocery stores legislation her top priority for the year, meeting with committee members and lobbyists ahead of the amendment's release.
State Rep. Kent Williams, groused about the behind-the-scenes neogotiations.
"I got it at 9 o'clock last night, it's 29 pages, and I don't like it," the Elizabethton independent said loudly from the podium shortly before the meeting began.