People rightly to have their say on wine sales

People rightly to have their say on wine sales

March 5th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

A sign in a Kroger supermarket in Nashville urges shoppers to sign up for a group urging lawmakers to change state law that limits wine sales to liquor stores.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Orson Welles, shilling on television for Paul Masson Mountain Winery in the 1970s, used to purr: "We will sell no wine before its time."

In Tennessee grocery stores, "big box" retailers and convenience stores, that time has almost come.

With the expected signature of Gov. Bill Haslam, voters in cities and counties that have approved either liquor package stores or liquor-by-the-drink soon will be able to determine if they want the sales.

On the whole, it's a sensible way of handling an issue that has been percolating in legislative chambers for seven years. Indeed, according to House sponsor Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, it's the way legislators dealt with the sale of liquor in package stores in 1939 and liquor by the drink in 1967.

It doesn't automatically allow sales but puts the decision in the hands of citizens. Further, it gives wine monopoly-holding liquor stores and wholesalers new revenue streams ahead of the change, and it gives Tennesseans what they say they want.

"Things have changed in our world," Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, of Murfreesboro, the bill's sponsor, told Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher after the initial Senate vote last month. "The people of Tennessee want this opportunity."

However, there are hoops to jump through.

To get the issue on the ballot in November, say, referendum supporters have to present to their election commission a petition -- and proponents say they'll have to figure out what that exact wording is -- with the signatures of registered voters effectively equal to 10 percent of voters who participated in the city or county's last governor's race.

Locally, Chattanooga, Lakeside, Lookout Mountain, Red Bank and Signal Mountain, within Hamilton County, have approved either liquor package sales or liquor-by-the-drink and potentially would be able to put the issue in front of voters.

In Chattanooga alone, where some 36,000 people voted -- according to the Hamilton County Election Commission -- in the 2010 governor's race, supporters will need around 3,600 names on a petition.

Retailers, according to wording of the bill, must pay the cost of a license ($1,250) and will be required to charge customers a minimum 20 percent mark-up over the wholesale price.

The bill also set a minimum requirement for the size of newly licensed food stores able to sell wine (1,200 square feet). And sales of wine would continue to be prohibited on Sunday at any outlets.

Even if voters say they want such sales, though, wine won't be able to be sold in Tennessee grocery stores until 2016. The delay was put in place to allow independent liquor stores -- which will be able to sell food, cigarettes, drink mixes and glassware as of July 1 -- time to prepare for competition with grocery chain stores. Grocery stores within 500 feet of a liquor store will not be able to sell wine until July 1, 2017, unless the store owner gives consent.

Few saw the measure's relative ease through the legislative process, passing as it did 71-15 in the House and 23-4 in the Senate. In previous years, opponents managed to kill similar bills in committee. In 2013, for instance, a bill passed a key Senate committee but died in the House Local Government Committee.

Even earlier this year, officials expected a major scrap. And at one point, legislators said they'd feel good if a bill passed allowing sales only in grocery stores.

"There are so many tentacles on this because it affected so many people," Ketron said. "Every group that was affected gave up something."

Legislators also heard from their constituents, 63 percent of whom said in a Middle Tennessee State University poll they favored "letting grocery, convenience and other stores that sell food in Tennessee sell wine if they are located in places that allow the sale of alcoholic beverages." According to the poll, 26 percent were opposed and 11 percent unsure.

"The constituents overwhelmingly wanted the opportunity to buy wine in grocery stores," House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said after the House vote. "But members really wanted to protect local businesses as well."