After years of the legislature saying it was too early to uncork a serious debate about selling wine in food stores, grocers are convinced the discussion has fermented long enough.
The issue has been a politically sexy one for years. But even in a state that could conjure new laws banning students from wearing saggy pants, selling wine in grocery stores never had a chance.
But this year a handful of factors have changed. Top lawmakers have gone on record to say they’re open to the idea. Legislative leaders are shuffling committees that have repeatedly killed the bills before the legislation had time to breathe. And grocers have a new approach.
The grocers’ plan is to spin this year’s bill to sell wine in food stores into a referendum on giving the public a choice, county by county.
Liquor store owners, who have won the fight to maintain the status quo for six straight years, argue the state has no business bending to the will of big-box grocery stores.
“They’re just trying to circumvent the legislative process,” said Chip Christianson, vice president of legislative affairs for the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Association. “That doesn’t make any sense at all,” he said, characterizing opponents’ view as, “If we don’t like what the legislature’s doing, why not have a public referendum on everything.”
The so-called wine in grocery stores debate will be one of several hot topics on Capitol Hill this year as the GOP’s beefed-up majorities settle in for another round of governing on issues ranging from gun rights and school choice to health care and worker’s compensation.
The wine issue has become a perennial topic in Tennessee. The idea of food stores selling wine polls favorably among the public but has failed to go anywhere despite the fact that 33 other states allow such sales, including all but two bordering the Volunteer State.
Tennessee’s alcohol laws are interesting in their own right. Liquor stores corner the market on hard liquor and wine sales between some 500 stores. While they have exclusive rights to sell those bottles, they’re prohibited from selling anything else like beer, ice or even a corkscrew to open a bottle with. Proprietors are also banned from growing their store into a chain and instead are restricted to a single location.
“It’s all baffling that a government is telling businesses what we can and can’t sell,” said Emily Ogden, Tennessee Wine Project coordinator for Kroger, which has 122 grocery stores statewide. “Singling out and giving added protections to this business and holding them on a pedestal that they should be protected doesn’t make any sense.”
The proposal that grocers expect to put on the table this month could change that dynamic. But the politics of passing a law to ultimately allow wine in food stores are complicated.
Polls indicate a groundswell of public support for selling wine in grocery stores. When last asked in 2011, some 65 percent of Tennesseans surveyed by Middle Tennessee State University said they favor the idea, as did 69 percent questioned by Vanderbilt University. When Vanderbilt followed up the question by pointing out the move could “benefit large chain stores while hurting small locally owned businesses,” 60 percent still said yes to grocery stores selling wine.
But despite the support, the legislation has continually died at the hands of the House State and Local Government committee, due to lawmakers who refused to advance the legislation by finding ways to postpone its vote. Last year that group was four East Tennesseans: former House Speaker Kent Williams and Reps. Curry Todd, Ryan Haynes and Bob Ramsey.
Official reasons for opposition to selling wine in food stores vary. The most common argument is the move would hurt small businesses whose owners invested in their stores under a certain set of assumptions, including that they wouldn’t have to compete with grocery stores. Others include contentions that alcohol would be more accessible to minors and the overall consumption of alcohol would rise.
The other reason is money. Candidates across the state were on the receiving end of nearly $100,000 in campaign cash from liquor retailers and grocers this election season, according to a review of available campaign finance reports.
This year, the grocers’ plan is to get away from the “wine in grocery stores” discussion and turn it into a debate about a free market and giving voters the right to choose for themselves.
The crux of the expected bill would allow counties to hold their own voter referendums to decide whether to allow food stores to sell wine — much like how voters are now asked to allow liquor-by-the-drink sales and the presence of retail liquor stores. Between stores in dry counties and retailers who will refuse to sell alcohol, the move would likely mean some 2,000 of the state’s 7,000 total food retailers would ultimately end up selling wine, the state predicted two years ago.
That angle — and the fact that 2013 is a non-election year — gives political cover to the more rural lawmakers who recoil at the mention of alcohol, or know voters in their district do.
“It will be an all-out battle, but I think if the legislators who are going to be voting pay attention to what people in their district want, they should allow them to determine their own destiny,” said Sen. Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican who will sponsor the bill.
To soften the blow of taking business away from liquor stores, the grocers are willing to include a sweetener: letting the liquor outlets sell companion products like ice, mixers or anything else they want. Grocers are also OK with liquor store companies opening chain locations, but they say the liquor store lobby has to come to the negotiating table first.
But liquor store owners aren’t interested in any distraction from selling high-proof alcohol as they do now.
Reduced sales of mainstream, “bread-and-butter wines” will hurt businesses that rely on those purchases to cover overhead costs, said Christianson, who owns J. Barleycorn’s Wine and Spirits. Furthermore, the profit from those popular wines has allowed stores to stock shelves with more unusual selections. Ultimately, changing the law would cause wine lovers’ retail selections to dry up, he argued.
Not only would grocery stores sell wine under the proposal, but so would convenience stores and gas stations that sell food. Competition alone wouldn’t cause each liquor store to go out of business, he said, but in his case he’d have to lay workers off.
Gov. Bill Haslam, whose family owns Pilot Flying J truck stops that could stand to benefit if allowed to sell wine, said he’ll stick to the sidelines as this issue unfolds in the legislature. That stance has softened from years past when he said it wasn’t fair to change rules on businesses in the middle of the game.
In the legislature, both speakers have indicated they are friendly to the idea of wine in food stores, including Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who said he wanted to give the issue “a fighting chance” this year and would consider that bill when making his committee
House Speaker Beth Harwell, who said she supports grocery stores selling wine, said the topic has been coming for a long time and may finally be due. She stopped short, though, of saying her views on the idea will sway how she builds the committee that will hear the legislation.
“When appointing committees, however, I consider each member’s area of expertise, experience, previous service and their interests,” Harwell told The City Paper in an email asking to what extent the wine bill will affect how she builds committees. This year, she plans on breaking the committee the wine bill typically lands in into two separate committees. Whom she appoints to each committee and where she assigns that bill could indicate the opportunity the bill has for a chance to advance.
For years, the bill would die in the House committee, but this year, lawmakers hope to give the plan a jolt by running it through the Senate side shortly out of the gates before kicking it in gear in the House.
But there’s a lot at stake. Interest groups on all sides of this issue have ratcheted up campaign donations to lawmakers and the parties in anticipation of a showdown this year. Kroger, the state’s leading grocer, and the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association contributed more than $20,000 this election season, according to campaign finance records. The Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers handed out more than $66,000, although the state has yet to release final donation totals.
Christianson argues the wine in grocery stores issue is overblown and boils down to “somebody having a wee bit more convenience.”
“People ought to be conflicted about this,” he continued. “We want to support our local businesses and I try to do that, and then we have people saying, ‘Let’s hurt local businesses, let’s help the big guys.’ That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
But few bills ever pass the legislature without a few edits, and generally two sides will find some level of compromise. That’s something Jarron Springer, president of the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association, hopes will happen if the bill actually wins approval in committee.
“Until something moves, they don’t have to sit down and discuss how those things would change,” Springer said.
The part-time legislature begins meeting in earnest in mid-January and will meet every week until they approve a budget in the spring and call it a year, likely by early May.
Each body meets in full session every Monday night and Thursday morning, occasionally mixing Wednesday mornings in. These meetings in the Capitol Building are open to the public, who can watch in person from the chamber galleries or online through a live video stream. Committees are generally reserved for Tuesdays and Wednesdays, although the groups will occasionally meet on Mondays and Thursdays.
Keeping tabs on state lawmakers is easy with the right tools, namely the legislature’s website, capitol.tn.gov. There, people can identify their local lawmaker by exploring the “Legislators” tab and clicking the “Find My Legislator” option. The public can also search for bills by subject and index number, and can build a list of “My Bills” to follow under a personal login.
People who want to keep a finger on the legislature’s pulse from their home or office can watch hearings and floor sessions live or by flipping on archived videos. The public can also look up the videos of lawmakers discussing a specific bill by looking up that legislation, then clicking the “Video Clips” tab to find links to various segments from committee hearings or floor sessions on that particular legislation.
The public can also attend these meetings in person at the Capitol Building located on Charlotte and Sixth Avenues, and at Legislative Plaza, at Sixth Avenue and Union Street. Admission is granted to any member of the public, as long as they leave any weapons they have behind.
Of the 132 lawmakers gracing the halls of Capitol Hill beginning this week, almost half are fresh faces. In last year’s election, voters sent 28 new people into public service. Combined with the last wave of new lawmakers from the 2010 election, the legislature is home to a combined 53 members — or 40 percent — of the General Assembly with two years of experience or less.
This year’s legislature also sports massive Republican majorities over Democrats (96 to 35 with one independent), giving the GOP distinct control of both chambers in addition to the Republican-held governor’s office.
This week both chambers expect to re-elect their GOP speakers, Harwell and Ramsey, who will appoint members to committees by Thursday. Committee assignments prove crucial in a legislature where many bills are stopped before they ever reach a floor vote.
House Speaker Harwell wants to change the structure of those committees this year, by merging underworked committees and splitting up committees overwhelmed with hundreds of bills. She is also asking that lawmakers approve her plans to limit each lawmaker to 10 bills a year, in addition to local legislation and resolutions, in an attempt to speed up the legislature and reduce time on controversial social issues.
Shortly after lawmakers get back into the swing of things, some top leaders want to resolve an ongoing fight over gun laws that wreaked political havoc on GOP lawmakers last year.
Senate Speaker Ramsey said he’s working on a plan to allow gun owners to lock their firearms in their parked vehicles on work property, an issue the business community roundly rejects in favor of employers’ property rights. When Republicans punted on the idea last year, gun rights advocates fired down on the GOP and convinced voters to unseat a leading Republican in retaliation.
As the Senate’s leading Republican — who argues many people already stow their firearms in their cars while at work — Ramsey said he’ll make a point to get the issue ironed out early this year to legalize the practice. Harwell, who caught flak for not pushing the idea last year, has said passing such a measure is not a priority.
The major sticking point in any agreement appears to be whether to allow the same practice on college campuses, which has become more politicized since last month’s elementary school shooting in Connecticut that left 27 people dead, many of them children. Haslam has said he’s also willing to find balance in the legislation, but wants guns kept off college campuses.
As the wheels begin to turn to implement major pillars of the federal health care overhaul in time for 2014, state officials will have to decide whether to expand the state’s Medicaid rolls.
Aside from the politics of expanding President Obama’s flagship program, the Affordable Care Act, the decision also falls on details about money. State officials already expect some 60,000 people to sign up for TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, simply from learning about their eligibility in light of new federal requirements they obtain health insurance.
TennCare is a health insurance program for poor children, pregnant women, the elderly and the disabled. Originally, so-called ObamaCare called for an expansion of the program, but a Supreme Court opinion last year said states could not be forced into growing the rolls.
The federal government will cover 100 percent of the expansion’s cost for three years and 90 percent thereafter. But critics in the legislature argue there’s no guarantee the federal government will keep that financial promise in years to come.
The only constitutional reason lawmakers come to Nashville each year is to pass a state budget that covers everything from funding for schools and roads to how much to tax people at the gas station and the grocery store.
Haslam will pitch an estimated $31.5 billion budget plan by the end of the month, but if history is a guide, lawmakers likely will wait until April to finalize their revisions to it — likely in late-night committee meetings and deals hashed out behind closed doors in the final days of the session.
With revenue estimates looking rosier than expected, Haslam is looking at the problem of saying no to agencies and interests that have staved off budget increases for years in hopes they would see an influx of cash once the economy turned around.
Although state government has already collected $51.6 million more in revenue than it expected to so far this budget year, the only items the governor has promised to splurge on are increased prison reimbursements for local jails that house state inmates, an approximately $350 million influx in TennCare expenses, and natural growth of education costs. He’s also said he’d like to make a priority out of ensuring people who foster or adopt children are given larger monthly payments.
After years of putting it off, lawmakers are promising to deliver a law that would allow parents to send some students to private schools using taxpayer dollars.
The problem is lawmakers will have to agree on a handful of divisive program details first. Vouchers are generally opposed by local school districts because the program threatens to take money and involved families out of public schools and put them into private schools, including parochial ones.
Select lawmakers hungry to offer options to parents have been trying to sell the legislature on the issue for years. In 2011, Haslam asked that the General Assembly take a pass while a hand-picked task force worked to devise the best-laid plan for a Tennessee “voucher” program, otherwise known as “opportunity scholarships.”
The group offered no blueprint for the governor and legislators to follow. Instead, they released options for lawmakers to consider, such as whether to limit the program to low-income students or children at poor-performing schools; determine which private schools can participate; how to hold the schools accountable; how much money follows the student out of the public school and into the private one; and when the program would launch.
“Every question you answer brings up another one,” said Haslam, who will either control the scope of the program by pitching his own plan or help shape lawmakers’ proposals from the sidelines. Haslam has said the only detail he’s settled on is that any program should go statewide, not just be piloted in a few key areas.
As Tennesseans watch new charter schools sprout across the state, state lawmakers are looking to stiffen laws that dictate how they’re approved.
Originally, the idea was a solution in search of a problem — and carried little weight among lawmakers. But the plan is gaining momentum after Metro Nashville Public School’s high-profile face-off with the state after the local board refused to OK a specific charter school application despite an apparent order from the State Board of Education to approve it.
Charter school advocates said they saw this situation coming and plan to urge lawmakers to create an independent government body that will accept charter school applications from operators wanting to circumvent the local school board. Those same advocates say they don’t want to write local districts completely out of the process, but the system needs more stability.
“There has to be something where there’s a predictable environment, where it’s not just the school board said, ‘I know you’re a great operator but we just, for whatever reason, we don’t want you,’ ” said Haslam, who said the law needs clarity.
Opponents, namely local school boards, argue the move would strip the school district of local control by letting state bureaucrats decide what’s best for hometown districts.
Democrats want to find ways to open more pre-K classrooms this year, although Republicans are generally against the idea of any expansion of the state-funded program.
Craig Fitzhugh, House Democratic leader and 2014 gubernatorial hopeful, said the issue would be among those atop their agenda going into this year’s legislative session.
The governor has been careful not to rule out adding money to the state-funded free pre-K program for low-income children — hinting over the summer he may be willing to expand funding. But those odds look unlikely given that a handful of Republicans adamantly oppose the program’s existence, calling it state-funded babysitting.
Both sides point to varying studies of the program that paint different pictures for the lasting effects of attending pre-K. One study suggests gains made by low-income children who attend pre-K wear off by third grade, while other studies indicate students had stronger literacy and math skills.
Haslam also shrugged off suggestions last year that a slight expansion to pre-K could be linked to the passage of a voucher bill, saying he didn’t think “the two were coupled at all.”
Democrats, who are expected to spend the next two years positioning themselves in a way to reclaim seats they lost to the swelling Republican Party, said they could make expanding pre-K doable by shifting around resources to open additional classrooms.
The governor has all but promised to bring reforms to the state worker’s compensation system via the legislature this year, although he’s been shy on the details.
But one of the themes coming out of the Capitol and the business community includes changing how workers’ compensation cases are heard, with a push toward shifting those responsibilities from the courts to an administrative panel.
“Without knowing the details yet, we’re certainly supportive of getting workers’ comp out of the courts,” said Jim Brown, state chapter executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business. A new, more streamlined system would speed up judgments on workers’ compensation, he said, adding cases “drag on sometimes for years, not just months.”
Other ideas include changing the flavor of the workers’ compensation laws, said Brown. He said the NFIB would like to see the legislature clarify the law to stress more neutral interpretation of state laws, where he said businesses worry that judges have taken a more worker-friendly stance to workers’ compensation cases.