This story was updated April 11, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. with more information.polls here 4303
NASHVILLE — Tennesseans will be able to buy bottles of wine and liquor on Sundays under just-passed legislation, with Gov. Bill Haslam expected to sign the measure.
The state Senate gave final approval Wednesday to the legislation, which narrowly passed the chamber in a 17-11 vote, the bare minimum number of votes needed for approval. The House passed the measure by a broader margin earlier in the week.
Haslam expects to sign the bill into law, pending a customary review of its final language. It will legalize sales of bottled wine on Sundays and most major holidays in grocery stores beginning Jan. 1.
But for package stores, the effects will be immediate. Their customers will be able to purchase wine and liquor immediately upon the bill becoming law under a compromise intended to give the small business owners a head start. Sunday and holiday sales hours would be from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., matching the current restraints on beer.
Package store owners, who four years ago were unable to stop the legalization of wine sales in supermarkets, this year were divided on the Sunday sales issue and wound up seeking the best deal they could get.
Nonetheless, not all package store operators may take advantage of the ability to sell their products on Sunday.
"It was inevitable. All the Southern states that were holding onto the blue laws, it was just inevitable that they were going to go away. It's not anything that I'm thrilled about," said Brian Leutwiler, managing partner of Imbibe Chattanooga, a wine and liquor store located downtown.
Leutwiler said that "as far as having a business that's open seven days a week, it's just not — I'm conservative — and being closed on Sunday, I thought was a very good thing."
In comparison with Monday night's hour-long House debate on the companion bill sponsored by Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, the Senate debate was relatively brief.facebook
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, the bill's Senate sponsor, said the issue is consumers want convenience and that there's been a major shift of grocery shopping from Saturdays to Sundays.
"As a free-market person, I don't think government should be dictating the hours," Ketron said.
He also sought to address objections raised by House religious conservatives by citing favorable references to wine in both the Old and New Testaments.
"In the scripture it talks 20 different times about the bad things of alcohol. But the scriptures speak 233 times about the good things of alcohol," Ketron said, adding, "I Googled it."
He noted that in the Gospel of John, Jesus turned water into wine. He also cited Ecclesiastes and Timothy.
"What the scriptures say is to drink in moderation," Ketron said. "Nowhere [does] the Bible describe wine as sinful."
And while representative after representative stood in the House to criticize the legislation, only Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, raised concerns in the upper chamber, neither citing their own religious objections per se.
In order to get support from enough liquor store owners, the legislation does a variety of things. Store owners for the first time will be able to sell their liquor licenses if they wish to go out of business. There is a three-year moratorium on the state issuing new liquor store licenses. And current store owners can hold going-out-of-business sales for customers. Now store owners have to sell their products back to the wine-and-spirit wholesalers.
There's also a 10 percent mandatory markup for consumers.
Most were concessions made to package store owners, many of them mom-and-pop operations fearful that grocery store chains eventually will drive them out of business.
Still, that wasn't enough for Gardenhire, who told Ketron he believes store owners leaving the business should be able to sell their product to other store owners.
If the bill were creating a "real free market," Gardenhire told senators, he would support it. He voted no. Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, voted yes.
Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, said small store owners in Memphis have told him they don't like the idea of working on Sundays.
After the bill's final passage, pastor Dale Walker, president of the conservative Tennessee Pastors Network, issued a sharp rebuke of the Tennessee General Assembly.
Calling the bill "despicable" and charging politicians had sold out to "Big Liquor," Walker charged that those "who voted for it will have the blood of the innocent on their hands with a trail of misery that always follows alcohol and wicked liquor.
"Many politicians are addicted to the power they have and will sell out Christian values for a check to their campaign coffers just to get re-elected," Walker added.
Distilled Spirits Council Vice President Dale Szyndrowski praised lawmakers, saying they "voted in favor of consumers and small business owners."
"Tennesseans want a convenient and modern marketplace that allows alcohol sales seven days a week — just like in neighboring states," he said, alluding to surrounding states such as Georgia, where Sunday bottle sales are legal. "It is important that shoppers are able to buy from local businesses and invest their tax dollars in Tennessee, instead of making a trip across the border."
He thanked both McCormick and Ketron. McCormick said he brought the legislation after numerous complaints from grocery store patrons who griped about being turned away from the checkout counter on Sundays as they sought to purchase wine.
Ketron, meanwhile, pointed out that Tennesseans already can buy bottles of wine on Sundays from restaurants, drink a portion of the wine, then recork their bottles and take them home.
Staff writer Rosana Hughes contributed to this story.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.