Tennessee Senate gives final legislative approval to compromise bill authorizing local referendums to decide whether wine can be sold in some retail food stores

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee , March 4, 2014 () – The state Senate gave final legislative approval Monday night to a compromise bill authorizing local referendums to decide whether wine can be sold in some retail food stores, capping an eight-year effort in the General Assembly.

"I think members of this body and the house listened to the people who wanted to be able to buy wine in grocery stores," said Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, in a brief Senate floor speech. "Now they can vote it down or they can vote it in."

The last legislative step was the Senate's concurrence in a series of three votes with amendments adopted in the House.

One revision says a store must have at least 1,200 square feet of retail space -- the earlier version required 2,000 square feet -- and another sets the cost of a retail wine-selling license at $1,250. Initially, the House version set the price at $850; the Senate at $2,000 and the amendment, Ketron said, "split the baby."

The bill (SB837) now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam, who has been neutral on the legislation but is expected to sign it into law. The next step for retailers who want to sell wine will be setting up local referendums in cities or counties eligible under the bill -- those that now allow liquor-by-the-drink sales or have liquor package stores.

To hold a vote, retailers or other supporters of wine in grocery stores must first get registered voter signatures on a qualifying petition from 10 percent of the number of people voting in the last gubernatorial election in a given jurisdiction. In Knox County, records show 103,777 people voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election, so 10,378 signatures would be required for a countywide referendum.

The bill authorizes referendums to be held as early as November, but no wine sales will be allowed until July 1, 2016. On the other hand, existing liquor stores can begin selling new items as authorized by the bill -- including cigarettes, beer and snacks -- starting July 1 of this year.

The bill also mandates that wine be sold at retail at a price at least 20 percent above wholesale price. Another House amendment, approved by the Senate Monday, delays the effective date of the mandatory markup from July of this year until July of 2014. That amendment was approved on a 23-4 vote. The other amendments were approved on identical 22-5 votes.

On earlier key votes, the overall bill was approved 71-15 in the House and 23-8 in the Senate.


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