House panel reverses course on Tennessee liquor store cap

State Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, leaves a House committee hearing room in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, to consult with lobbyists for liquor wholesalers and retailers. Todd is the sponsor of legislation seeking to imposing a 2-store cap on liquor store ownership in Tennessee. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A House committee that two weeks ago voted to reject a proposed cap on liquor store ownership in Tennessee reversed course on Tuesday and placed the limits back into the bill headed for a floor vote.

Members of the House Finance Committee previously agreed that imposing the cap on package store ownership would give those businesses protection against market forces that isn't extended to other sectors of the economy. But under heavy lobbying by liquor store retailers and wholesalers, the members of the panel voted to change their stance.

The vote to reject the creation of a cap on liquor store ownership was 10-9 two weeks ago. The move to restore that that provision was 16-4 on Tuesday.

Republican Rep. Curry Todd of Collierville, the bill's main sponsor and a close ally of the liquor lobby, said the cap is necessary because owners sell "a dangerous product" that needs tight control.

"This bill is not about protectionism," said Todd, the sponsor of a 2009 law allowing people with handgun carry permits to carry guns in bars and who later pleaded guilty to drunken driving with a loaded .38-caliber gun stuffed next to driver's seat.

"By limiting the number of licenses that one person can hold, we're working to keep the owners at the stores and watching over these to make sure our laws are followed in Tennessee," Todd said.

House Majority leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga argued the move would reflect poorly on the way Republicans run the chamber.

"If we do this, we're doing it the way they always did it and it doesn't matter who governs," he said. "And the people of the state will figured it out like they figured it out in Washington, and you're seeing that in primaries right now."

"We're coming really close to going back to the old ways where special interests come in and protect their industries against competition," he said. "I don't think that's what we want to stand for."

The Senate passed the bill imposing the caps last week by a 21-6 vote. Republican Sen. Frank Niceley's derision of the measure as "pure, cold, hard protectionism" and as contrary to GOP ideals was met with laughter during the floor debate.

The liquor store cap is part of larger bill aimed at allowing supermarkets to begin stocking their shelves in advance of a new law allowing them sell wine beginning on July 1.

Tennessee lawmakers lifted the cap on licenses as a concession to liquor stores owners who largely opposed the wine-in-supermarkets bill in 2014.

David McMahan, a lobbyist for Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, has said liquor store owners had originally thought that lifting the cap would help them compete with grocery store chains that can sell wine. But now they worry about being squashed by larger competitors.

The decision to try to go back to the two-store limit came after a state attorney general's opinion found constitutional concerns with a Tennessee residency requirement for liquor store owners.