Legislation that would lift the state law restricting wine sales to liquor stores was cleared Tuesday for a vote by the Tennessee House of Representatives, possibly as soon as next week.
The House Finance Committee approved a bill that would let supermarkets, convenience stores and big-box retailers sell wine starting in 2016 in communities that pass a referendum to allow it. The decision sent wine-in-grocery stores legislation to the House floor for the first time since debate over the issue heated up more than seven years ago.
Members of the committee approved the measure, House Bill 610, on a voice vote with minimal debate. The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Jon Lundberg, said the vote suggests growing support.
"I think every step that you've seen, this year, this session, it's gained momentum," said Lundberg, R-Bristol. "I think that's a good sign."
The House Finance Committee also passed a back-up measure,House Bill 47, that could be taken up if HB 610 fails.
The House could take up the wine-in-grocery stores bill as soon as Thursday. The bill has been on a fast track this year, with House Speaker Beth Harwell a firm supporter.
The main risks to the bill lie in small differences between HB 610 and the version approved by the Senate in January. Senate Bill 837 would allow sales in smaller stores than the House version, and it sets the annual licensing for grocery stores to sell wine at $850, compared to $2,000 in the House bill.
Lundberg and state Rep. Ryan Haynes, another backer of the House bill, said it reflects compromises reached among grocery store representatives, liquor store owners and other interests. They said they would resist attempts to bend to the Senate version.
Bard Quillman, a board member with the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association, said he and other liquor store owners continue to oppose wine in grocery stores, but the House bill represents a "mutual framework" that they're willing to accept.
"We still don't want wine in grocery stores. We're still not overly excited about that, but we've worked very hard," he said. "There's a lot of compromise in that bill. ... You start taking one part out of it, the whole thing's going to fall apart. It is a real compromise."