Warm Southern Breeze

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Tennessee may modernize antiquated beverage alcohol laws

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Tennessee has some very strange and peculiar laws regarding the regulation of beverage alcohol, most of which remain rooted in the Prohibition Era, and in in fear.

And, true to form, it would be no wonder that Baptists – the arch-conservative religious political right wing activists of the right wing party – are directly involved in efforts to keep the state mired in the antiquated bad old days of yore.

Tennessee is unique in the regard that state law forbids sale of wine except in state-licensed liquor stores. To clarify, the state of Tennessee has an unusual combination of laws that forbid sales of wine in any other type store save one that sells liquor. Further, sales are prohibited on Sunday. Beer, however, is able to be sold in grocery stores… but only if the ABV (Alcohol By Volume) is under 6%.

Alabama once had a similarly prohibitive content law, along with bottle size restriction – which severely limited the sales of domestic and imported craft/micro brew beers and ales. Alabama no longer has such prohibitive limitations.

And then, if one considers the implications of that law – mandating the sale of wine be exclusively limited to sales in liquor stores – the state actually sanctions the liquor enterprise itself, rather than being a neutral, regulatory body. In Tennessee there are no state-operated liquor stores as there are in Alabama. To have a state-run enterprise is not contradictory to the free market, because the state is a direct competitor in the market, which frequently has the lowest priced products, because taxes are the markup/profit margin for the state. Contrasting that model with the private retailer, the private retailer must make a profit atop the taxes which the state charges (after they purchase from the state at a wholesale cost – the same cost the state sells to the general public), thus increasing the retail price above what the state sells it.

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.

A crowd stands in the hallway to listen to state Sen. Bill Ketron speak about wine-in-supermarkets legislation on Monday at Legislative Plaza in Nashville. Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean

A crowd stands in the hallway to listen to state Sen. Bill Ketron speak about wine-in-supermarkets legislation on Monday at Legislative Plaza in Nashville. Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean

 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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