After last year's elections swept in a bevy of fresh faces in the state legislature, supporters of wine sales in grocery stores thought that this year might finally be their chance to get such legislation passed - or, as we wrote back in February, "proponents of the change are cautiously optimistic this time that it might actually stick around long enough for a committee vote, at least."
For the fifth year in a row, the legislation died in committee in the House on Wednesday, two weeks after a committee in the Senate had delayed a vote on the legislation. However, for the first time ever, there was indeed a vote - if not on the legislation itself, on an amendment to it. "It's somewhat historic," says Jarron Springer, the head of the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Stores Association, which is the main lobbying force behind the legislation. "It's a little bit of a victory."
Make no mistake - Springer is disappointed that grocery stores across the state will not be able to sell wine alongside the beer on their shelves, something he says polls have shown 70 percent of Tennessee wine-drinkers want. (It's also something that would be a large moneymaker for the members of his association.) But he says the fact that the legislation didn't die for lack of a second when a sponsoring member made the motion to bring it up is a huge step in itself. (If this is confusing, you can brush up on how the legislature works here.)
Red, White, and Food, the marketing/lobbying campaign behind the effort, has posted several videos from Wednesday's hearing on their blog, if you're so inclined to immerse yourself in what actually happened. But basically what happened is that the committee never actually voted on HB 406 itself, only on an amendment that would provide for local referendums for wine sales in grocery stores - i.e., every municipality would have to approve the measure on its own. Voting against the measure were Knoxville's own Rep. Ryan Haynes, Maryville's Rep. Bob Ramsey, both Republicans, along with Reps. Kent Williams (R-Elizabethton), Curry Todd (R-Collierville), and Mike Turner (D-Old Hickory). Rep. Larry Miller (D-Memphis) seconded the motion that allowed discussion of the amendment but abstained from voting. In favor of the legislation were Reps. Gerald McCormick and Jim Cobb, both Republicans, and Democrat Rep. Tommie Brown.
(Interestingly, all three who voted in favor of the amendment represent Chattanooga and/or Hamilton County. One can only wonder if their support came from having lived so close to the Georgia state line and having seen the absolutely non-dramatic effects of wine sales in grocery stores just a few blocks away from their fair city - that, or they're still bitter about losing the tax dollars from the new Costco that opened just over the state line in order to sell wine.)
"It's incomprehensible to me that the legislature voted down the opportunity to let the voters decide," Springer says. But when you think how complicated such referendums could actually be - for example, Knoxville voters could pass a law to allow wine sales in grocery stores, while voters in Knox County might not - it seems like waiting another year for a whole state option wouldn't be the worse thing in the world.
Of course, waiting just one more year might prove unrealistic. Next year, 2012, is an election year, which means legislators are notoriously loathe to even introduce bills that might cost them votes. And, it should also be noted, HB 406 isn't technically dead - action has just been deferred on the bill. To July 4, 2012. By which date, even if it weren't a holiday, the legislature would be finished. "That's a little dirt in your eye," Springer says. "There's a feeling by the public that we're being treated like children by the legislature, that they've made a mockery of this." (Of course the part of the public opposed to the bill - religious groups and liquor store owners - is quite gleeful.)
Could this become a hot-topic issue in 2012 legislative campaigns? Only time - and next year's session - will tell. But disappointed supporters of the bill should just look southward to Georgia for inspiration: After years and years and years of proposed legislation that went nowhere whatsoever, the state legislature this week finally passed a bill to allow local municipalities to vote on whether to allow retail alcohol sales on Sundays. So take heart, Tennessee. Dreams do come true. And until then, at least be content knowing that while you can't buy wine in grocery stores, you've been able to buy beer on Sundays for decades, unlike those poor, sad Georgians.