NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Opponents of a proposal to allow Tennessee communities to hold referendums on whether to allow wine to be sold in grocery stores argued Monday that the votes could do more harm than good.
The Senate State and Local Government Committee heard from opponents and supporters during a nearly two-hour meeting. The measure would leave it to voters in cities and counties to decide whether to expand wine sales beyond liquor stores.
A full committee vote Tuesday will decide whether the measure advances or fails another year. While allowing wine sales in supermarkets and convenience stores enjoys strong public support, it is strongly opposed by the liquor industry, package stores and religious groups.
Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, told the panel that he fears putting the wine measure before voters would have consequences similar to a recent campaign over allowing liquor-by-the drink sales in Pigeon Forge.
"Right now Pigeon Forge is polarized, families torn apartment, friendships ruined, because in our small communities they are battling over this liquor-by-the drink issue," he said. "And the same thing is going to happen."
Davis said lawmakers should stop short of putting more liquor issues on the ballot on the basis of convenience.
"We don't know where this idea of convenience is going to lead us, we don't know what the next step is," he said. "Others before you have not put it at the feet of the voters to have wine in liquor stores and I beg of you not to take it there."
Republican Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma, who declined to give her position on the bill after the meeting, told Davis that several issues will affect her decision.
"As a teetotaling Baptist myself, I can assure that my vote will not be based on convenience," she said. "It's going to be based on Tennesseans and what I'm hearing from my constituents in my district."
Steve Smith, president and CEO of the Food City chain of supermarkets dismissed arguments by liquor store owners that their businesses would be hurt by expanded wine sales.
"I'll tell you how it will affect their business," he told the panel. "They'll learn to compete as our company has done over the years, and as many other successful grocers in this state have done," he said.
Smith said the two Food City stores with the highest wine sales in Virginia are located near the Tennessee state lane, showing that shoppers are spending their money — and sales taxes — out of state.
"You'd be kidding yourself if you didn't recognize that Tennessee isn't missing out on sales tax dollars because wine is being sold in Virginia and not in Tennessee," he said.
Victoria Regens called the supermarket wine sales a matter of convenience for busy mothers juggling errands and other parenting duties. She said she was surprised to have to go to a liquor store to buy wine when she moved from Arizona to Nashville five years ago.
"I was amazed that that is not a convenience that is afforded in Tennessee, and I have to tell you I couldn't understand why," she said. "I can also tell you in Arizona there's no shortage of wine stores, independent stores, specialty stores (or) box chains."