The Tennessee Senate voted 23-8 Thursday morning to approve a bill that would let grocery stores, big-box retailers and convenience stores sell wine, largely following a plan put forward by the state House of Representatives earlier this week.
After seven years of debate, senators agreed to legislation that would let voters in 49 counties decide as soon as this November to determine whether to allow wine on their grocery store aisles. But retailers would not be able to start selling wine until July 1, 2016, a transition period meant to give liquor stores time to adjust to the shift in Tennessee's liquor laws.
The Senate vote does not send wine-in-grocery stores legislation to Gov. Bill Haslam's desk. The House still must approve a companion measure, and there are subtle differences between the two plans.
But the vote Thursday morning nonetheless represented a major victory for proponents of wine in grocery stores, who have fought the liquor industry for nearly a decade to force changes to the state's alcohol laws.
The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Bill Ketron, said his primary feeling was relief as the votes were tallied, after awakening in the early morning hours several times this week fearful his measure would fail.
"In the end, I think (senators) saw that's what the people want," said Ketron, R-Murfreesboro.
Ketron and other backers of the bill worked late into the night again Wednesday, trying to iron out details on wine-in-grocery legislation.
The plan presented Thursday as an amendment to Senate Bill 837 combined two measures making their way through the House. The few differences between the two versions favored grocery stores and their allies.
One provision says stores need to be only 1,200 square feet to sell wine -- a threshold that brings in more convenience stores. Analysts for the state legislature estimate that about 2,000 stores in Tennessee could try to sell wine under that standard.
Another difference is the licensing fee grocery stores would have to pay annually to sell wine. The House version sets it at $2,000. The Senate would lower it to $850, the same amount liquor stores pay.
Those differences could derail the legislation. But with the Senate version passing by a wide margin, backers said they are optimistic the House will approve a measure.
The House Finance Committee now takes up wine-in-grocery stores legislation, with the job of reviewing its impact on the state budget.
Legislative analysts estimate the Senate version would net about $7.5 million a year in new revenue once grocery stores begin selling wine. Local governments would collect about $6 million in new revenue, they say.
The full House could take up the legislation sometime next month.
Highlights of the Senate bill
* About 2,000 supermarkets, big-box retailers and convenience stores could begin selling wine in July 2016. Those within 500 feet of a liquor store would have to seek permission from that store's owner to sell wine before July 2017.
* No wine sales on Sundays.
* Liquor stores could sell other items starting this summer.
* Grocery stores could not sell "high gravity" beer, fruit-flavored wine, or wine with more than 18 percent alcohol.
* Wine would have to be marked up at least 20 percent over wholesale.