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TN's wine-in-supermarkets law heads to final decision

10:33 AM, Feb 26, 2013   |    comments
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By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean

Supporters and opponents of a bill that would let grocery and convenience stores sell wine undertook one final push to sway Tennessee lawmakers Monday ahead of a make-or-break vote in the state legislature.

Liquor store owners, grocery store operators, wine shoppers, a sheriff, an addiction specialist and a minister were among the people allowed to testify at a special hearing held a day before the Senate State & Local Government Committee is to vote on the biggest rewrite of Tennessee's liquor laws in decades. Members guarded their votes closely, asking few questions about an issue that has come before the legislature regularly.

Testimony largely hewed to the arguments that have been made time and again in the General Assembly. Supporters argued that grocery store sales will introduce more competition and increase convenience for wine shoppers. Opponents said loosening liquor laws will lead to more drinking and regulators will have difficulty limiting expansion solely to wine in grocery stores.

The 90-minute hearing was meant to give committee members more information about Senate Bill 837 ahead of today's vote - the first since supporters of wine-in-supermarkets began their most recent push in 2007.

The biggest difference in this year's legislation is it would require communities to hold referendums on whether to allow wine to be sold in their supermarkets.

The arguments varied widely. Grocery store operators said liquor stores should be required to compete for wine sales rather than having the guarantee of a state liquor license.

Victoria Regens, a West Nashville wine shopper, told the panel that the limits placed on wine sales sometimes force her to bring her children into liquor stores.

"I don't know if you've ever taken children to a liquor store, but it's an ordeal," she said. "I've got sweet kids. They want to help me shop. They want to help me pick out the wine and roll the carts."

On the other hand, liquor store operators said it will be difficult for lawmakers to keep convenience stores from also selling wine and to limit them to selling only wine and beer. Madison County Sheriff David Woolfork suggested convenience stores will card less often than liquor store operators, while Peter Martin, a Vanderbilt University psychiatry professor, said addiction to alcohol could rise.

Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, said liquor referendums will damage the state.

"The fabric of Tennessee is made up of smaller communities," he said. "It gets bad in these towns when you have these kinds of issues."

But most of the members appeared to have little need for more input. The little discussion that did take place largely came at the instigation of supporters, who demanded data from opponents to back up their claims.

"I think some of their testimony was kind of bogus," said state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, the measure's sponsor.

At the end of the hearing, state Sen. Ken Yager, the committee's chairman, said he intends to hold a vote on the legislation at the panel's meeting today. Ketron predicted the vote would be close, but he said he plans to press ahead with the measure even if it stands a chance of defeat.

"This is the first time in the Senate we've brought it up to vote," he said. "I think it's time to do that."

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