NASHVILLE - State senators on Monday popped the cork on a bill giving local voters the power to decide whether to allow wine sales in grocery stores.
Senators quickly concurred to minor House changes to the bill, voting 23-4 to send it to Gov. Bill Haslam, who is expected to sign it into law.
"The governor will review the legislation in its final form before taking action on it, but I anticipate he'll sign it," said Haslam spokesman David Smith.
"This bill has been a long time coming," Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, of Murfreesboro, the bill's sponsor, told colleagues.
Ketron, who spent seven years trying to pass versions of the bill, said members of the Senate and House "actually listened to the people who want to purchase wine in the grocery stores."
Proponents say once the bill becomes law, they eventually intend to follow up in coming weeks or months with petition drives in cities, including Chattanooga, to put public referendums on the ballot for voters in the November general election.
"We're still in the beginning stages of trying to put together who'll be working on those in the various communities and what those campaigns will look like," said Matthew Scanlan, who has been involved in lobbying efforts by the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association. "Once the governor signs it, we'll probably get a little bit more serious about those kinds of issues."
First order of business will be to determine the exact information needed for the petitions, Scanlan said.
The bill grants authority to voters in cities and counties that already have approved either liquor package stores or liquor-by-the-drink sales to determine whether grocery stores, "big box" retailers like Walmart and convenience stores can sell wine.
In order to get the issue on the ballot, referendum supporters would need to present a petition containing the signatures of registered voters effectively equaling 10 percent of voters who participated in the city or county's last governor's race.
Monday night's approval climaxed a seven-year battle between grocery store chains and liquor store owners and their allies, wine-and-liquor wholesalers, who resisted the change.
But opposition by religious conservatives and the powerful liquor industry were eventually overcome in part by numerous polls showing the idea was popular among voters.
The bill includes various concessions to liquor store owners and wholesalers. These include a delay in grocery stores selling wine until 2016. Meanwhile, liquor store owners will be able to begin selling items like drink mixes, glassware, lottery tickets and food items this summer.
Another provision requires retailers charge a 20 percent minimum markup over the wholesale price.
Changes to the bill dealt with minimum square footage requirements for newly licensed food stores able to sell wine (1,200 square feet) and the cost of a license ($1,250).
In terms of where proponents intend to push first for referendums, Scanlan said current thinking is "there's a wave of places that are easier to do than others. It's harder for a big organization to have available sites at the same time. But places like Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis, Knoxville, the larger cities certainly, Murfreesboro, Clarksville, maybe there's an initial list of some of those that we plan on having the referendum on the ballot in November."
Davidson County (Nashville) and Shelby County (Memphis) are the only counties where liquor package sales and liquor by the drink sales are countywide. In other areas of the state, only cities have approved either of the options required to put wine sales in grocery stores on the ballot.
In Hamilton County, the list of cities or towns includes Chattanooga, Lakesite, Lookout Mountain, Red Bank and Signal Mountain.
Voting for final approval on the bill were Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson; Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga; and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma.
Voting no were Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.