Lawmakers who wanted to give voters the power of a referendum to decide whether their local food stores should sell wine are hungover this week after the bill failed in a committee of state House of Representatives.
But Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is a fan of the bill, said he still wants the Senate to keep it alive and ready it for a floor vote just in case.
“This bill will eventually come back. It will. It would be my intention to strike while the iron’s hot,” Ramsey told reporters Thursday.
“Whether it’s this year or next year, it will be back and so we’ll have ours ready to go to the floor. I think that sends a message to the House that we think we have the votes. And if they just move forward, we’ll get this resolved,” said Ramsey. “That’d be my preference.”
Legislation to allow voters to decide whether to allow wine sales in local food stores garnered more momentum this year than it had in years past, a move advocates say is because the measure featured allowing voters to decide via a local referendum whether to allow the wine sales in stores that sell food.
The measure failed on an 8-7 vote in the House Local Government Committee Tuesday with a proponent of the bill, House Speaker Beth Harwell, in attendance hoping to break a tie to advance the measure closer to a full House vote.
Chairman Matthew Hill (D-Jonesborough) unexpectedly voted against the legislation, and Rep. Sherry Jones (D-Nashville) was absent from the committee at the time of the vote to attend a hearing about the Department of Children Services.
While the measure is dead, it’s unclear whether fans of the bill will try a rare move to resurrect it or wait until next year to take the measure up again.
The City Paper asked each member of the committee who voted to explain why they voted the way they did. The answers ranged from religious convictions and protecting liquor store owners to reading the writing on the wall of their constituents and advocating for a free market. Below is a recap of their answers:
Rep. Dale Carr (R-Sevierville): “I wouldn’t say I voted against wine-in-grocery stores. I voted the convictions of people back home in my district. I do have in my district six package stores and they asked me to try to protect their interest in that. They’ve had them a while, and they’re in a very small town and that’s their livelihood and they have employees they’d like to keep. And it comes down to small business. I ran my campaign on small business so, yes, I tried to protect my small businesses at home.”
Rep. Jimmy Eldridge (R-Jackson): “The reason I voted against moving this bill forward is just a personal conviction. I think it will hurt small businesses. I really feel that these small businesses out there, they can’t sell other products. All they can sell is wine and liquor ... . They’re not selling cheeses and pots and pans and clothes and what have them. It puts them at a pretty unfair advantage. The other thing is if it ain’t broke, what are we trying to fix? I think it’s very fair to say that people, if they want to purchase wine, (liquor stores are) all probably located within one mile of a shopping center or a grocery store. It’s real convenient to go in there.”
Rep. Richard Floyd (R-Chattanooga): “When I was 11 years old, on a Wednesday night, I accepted Christ and it changed my moral compass all of my life. I’ve never tasted alcohol in my life. I’ve never tasted a beer. That doesn’t make me better than anybody else. The reason I’ve never done that is I saw the impact it had on friends, family members ... I oppose all alcohol bills. I wasn’t voting for the liquor stores, because if I could, I wish that vote yesterday could have been to abolish alcohol in our state. But that’s not going to happen. I understand that.”
Rep. Steve Hall (R-Knoxville): “I actually think this can be very detrimental to the liquor industry. I know there were all kinds of proposed amendments, but that’s not what was before us. Based on what was before us, for me, it was a no. I’ve had lots of emails coming into my office here and lots of phone calls. [From his district] it was 70-30 in opposition, just the opposite of the numbers that they say that’s for it throughout the state ... I just really think that we’ve got an obligation to protect those folks, not that something can’t be worked out to make that happen, but it hasn’t yet, to equal out the playing field.”
Chairman Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough): “The reasoning behind my vote is simple: we must allow the committee system the opportunity to do its job — that is, we must give all bills that come before the legislature a fair, open, and honest hearing. This is what our constituents expect and what voters of this state deserve. When a bill comes before my committee, I cannot in good faith send a bill further along in the process unless I am confident both sides of the issue have had ample time to present their arguments. As an elected legislator sworn to protect the Tennessee Constitution, it is my duty to always conduct the people’s business in a sincere, appropriate, and transparent manner.”
Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden): “I’ve taken a pledge that I won’t do anything to liberalize or further expand the opportunity for alcohol sales in the state through any vote that I have anything to do with. Just a general lifetime rule that I go by. I think I was very clear in my campaign that was something that I wouldn’t do. I don’t take money from the liquor lobby and in no way do I want this to seem like I was in any way supporting the liquor lobby. I don’t like that industry either. It’s a bully industry, it’s one that’s absolutely had preferential treatment for years, as has the beer industry here in the state. It’s not that I have disproportionately have a distaste for wine. I just don’t like any kind of alcohol expansion.
Rep. Larry Miller (D-Memphis): “I thought it was a little ironic Wal-Mart suggested (liquor retailers) are a monopoly ... If you’re so strong about the referendum approach, (I’ve had) a bill allowing the voters by referendum to support gambling. And you know those individuals would look me in the face, ‘Oh no, I can’t support that.’ I thought you supported the referendum giving voters the right to choose, but you can’t support my bill to allow them to do the same thing on a different subject matter? ... That’s to me a little hypocritical.”
Rep. Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna): “This issue, with the rules that (liquor store owners) have played by, they’re extremely strict ... I don’t have a problem if somebody has a drink. That’s their issue, that’s their choice. What I do have a problem with is wine being in grocery stores 24/7, Mad Dog 20/20 being sold for 99-cents as a loss leader. That can happen. I don’t think we need to allow more children to be able to get more access to alcohol. Alcohol and 17 year old males, it’s a mixture for disaster ... the more it’s out there, the more problems you’re going to have.”
Rep. Joe Carr (R-Lascassas): Declined to comment.
Rep. Vince Dean (R-East Ridge): “I voted the wishes of my constituents. I heard overwhelmingly from my constituents, that they desired to vote on the issue. I saw some flaws in the bill. I was assured we would be able to fix those flaws before the bill actually went to the floor. I’m sent up here to represent the people. I’m a representatives more than I am a leader. I prefer to represent my people rather than lead them one direction or another. It’s hard to argue a request to let the voters to vote on an issue.”
Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin): “I knocked on a lot of doors last summer, 16,000 if you can believe that ... (Wine in grocery stores) was overwhelmingly popular. (Neighboring Rep. Glen Casada) send out those questionnaires and they would come back roughly 75 percent in favor of wine in grocery stores, and that’s without the referendum. When I knocked on doors, that seemed to be consistent with what I’d heard. It seemed like it was three or four to one of people who thought they should have the right to vote on it, so that’s why I voted yes.
Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby): “For me, at the end of the day, I’m just a free-market, capitalistic guy. I like business ... You ought to be able to sell something that’s legal. If it’s it giving it to the locals and allowing the locals to decide, that’s freedom. And I feel like the locals are very intelligent, they’re well-informed people, and every 95 county could have their idea if they wanted grocery stores to not. I think since I’ve been here — this is my third year — I’m always for a local referendum. If people want to vote, let’s let them vote.”
Rep. Bo Mitchell (D-Nashville): “My reason for voting for it is quite simple. I’ve polled it I guess three or four times and I think the lowest it’s ever been is 76 percent and it has gotten up to 82 percent of my district are for that. If I can’t listen to that, that’s pretty overwhelming when constituents in my district want it. I posted something on facebook, just a poll question asking people how they thought about it... That got over 13,000 views. I think just the public is overwhelmingly in support of it. That’s why I voted for it. Just basic constituent desire for it.”
Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis): “I think people should get the opportunity to vote on it. They know what’s best for themselves. They should have the opportunity to decide for themselves. It’s that simple. (The referendum) was the interesting twist on the legislation. That’s what sold me. I just hope that there were not personal agendas involved with the bill being defeated because it could have had a positive impact on businesses, it would have opened up what I consider more opportunity for the liquor retailers.”
Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville): “My constituents are overwhelmingly for it. They want that choice and, also I’ll say Kroger is in my district. They’re an extremely good citizen in my district. They treat their employees extremely well and they are for the bill and that also influenced me, because I think that’s a good organization. But overall, my district is overwhelmingly for wine in the grocery stores, so I support that.”