NASHVILLE - A Senate committee popped the cork on a bill allowing wine sales in grocery stores, giving the years-long effort its first real movement even in the Tennessee General Assembly.
Senate State and Local Government Committee members approved the bill on a 5-4 vote. That came after narrowly batting down an amendment permitting liquor stores to sell other items if a referendum passes allowing grocery stores to sell wine.
The bill still faces substantial hurdles in the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate floor and in the House.
This year, backers added a new provision to the bill. If it were to become law, local voters would decide the issue by referendums only in those communities that previously have approved liquor-by-the-drink and package store sales.
"This is an issue that I know has weighed heavy on you," said Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, the bill's sponsor. "It's weighed heavy on all of us."
But Ketron said "this is not about you voting to put wine in grocery stores. This bill today is to give the people in your respective districts" a right to vote on the issue.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has put his considerable political muscle into supporting the bill. Still, Ramsey said he isn't guaranteeing it will pass on the Senate floor.
Two area lawmakers split on the bill with State and Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager, R-Harriman, voting no and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, voting yes. Bowling has indicated she would follow the wishes of constituents.
Many liquor stores, liquor distributors and the Southern Baptist Convention fiercely oppose changes. But the issue is popular among some suburban Republicans as well as urban dwellers.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee's law prohibiting wine sales in grocery stores was widely seen by both Tennessee and Georgia legislators as playing a significant role in Costco's decision to locate a store two miles south into Georgia.
Georgia permits wine sales in grocery stores.
In other legislative action Tuesday:
• A bill creating a limited school voucher program cleared its first House hurdle in the House Education Subcommittee on a 6-2 vote.
Under Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal, the proposed law would apply initially to 5,000 students from low-income families attending failing schools. The figure could grow to 20,000 by 2016.