The crippling inconvenience and job-killing oppression of not having wine sold in supermarkets will continue in Tennessee, it seems, for at least another year.
Rep. Matthew Hill — perhaps acting out of principle or perhaps bristling from an earlier slight — cast a deciding vote to kill the bill in his subcommittee, as Speaker Beth Harwell looked on, ready to use her vote had the panel deadlocked, saving it as she had before.
Alas, the speaker sat, dismayed, unable to wrest this favored bill of the legislative Republican establishment from defeat at the hands of the party’s fundamentalist far right, personified by Rep. Hill, whose legislative contributions heretofore have addressed such serious concerns as preventing the United Nations from interfering in Tennessee’s elections.
The notion that Tennesseans be able to purchase wine alongside sandwich bread is the Volunteer State’s legislative zombie, back every year only to be killed, resurrected for the purposes of its own execution.
This particular prohibition is in fact an echo of actual Prohibition. Tennessee’s relationship with spirits is a complicated one — the best example: our most famous alcoholic export is manufactured in a dry county — and, as a result, the liquor laws make little sense in a vacuum, the big takeaway being that, yes, Tennesseans must make one more excruciating stop in order to get a bottle of chardonnay.
At the end of the day, though, this is a pretty silly conversation about a silly law given a silly amount of attention.
While Tennessee is second in the country in meth lab explosions, it’s the threat of wine in supermarkets that brings the police chiefs’ association to the Hill to warn everyone of its dangers like a histrionic 1960s scare film.
It gets outsized coverage because people care, and people care because it’s something they can understand. It doesn’t get changed because inertia is powerful, and it’s especially powerful when propped up by the liquor lobby, for a half-century or more the state’s most powerful lobby, though now the chambers of commerce and the small business associations are challenging for the title.
And while the legislature debates a school voucher program, a charter authorizer that rips power from local governments, and giving permit-holders the right to carry guns pretty much anywhere, we all wait with bated breath to find out if we can finally pick up that bottle of pinot at Publix.
It’s laudable, by the way, that in a year Republicans have spent attacking the conservative principle of localism, the wine bill included a local trigger, giving the voters of cities and counties the decision-making power on this all-important issue. That makes sense as it parallels much of the rest of the state’s liquor laws, but is notable in that the GOP hasn’t shown much interest in letting localities make their own choices.
But now it looks like voters won’t get that choice. The bill lives in the Senate, but will need a revival in the House, and given that this is apparently the most important piece of legislation since the GI Bill, hope persists that it gets another chance.
By the way, had every member of the committee been in the meeting, it’s likely they would have tied, given Harwell that chance to advance the legislation. Alas, Rep. Sherry Jones was at a hearing with the new leadership of the Department of Children’s Services and their efforts to reverse an actually vital piece of government that is in complete disarray.
Some things really are more important than personal convenience.