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Tennessee Senate Approves Wine-In-Grocery Bill

The Tennessee Senate voted 23-8 Thursday morning to approve a bill that would let grocery stores, big-box retailers and convenience stores sell wine, largely following a plan put forward by the state House of Representatives earlier in the week, the Tennessean reports.

After seven years of debate, senators agreed to legislation that would let voters in 49 counties decide as soon as this November whether to allow wine on their grocery store aisles. But retailers would not be able to start selling wine until July 1, 2016, a transition period meant to give liquor stores time to adjust to the shift in the law.

The Senate vote does not send wine-in-grocery-stores legislation to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk; the House still must approve a companion measure, and there are subtle differences between the two plans.

But the vote Thursday morning nonetheless represented a major victory for proponents of wine in grocery stores, who have fought the liquor industry for nearly a decade to force changes to the state’s alcohol laws.

One of those proponents is the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association (TGCSA) and its president, Jarron Springer. Fittingly, the victory came before Springer marks his last day (today, Jan. 31) at the helm of the organization. He is leaving to become the CEO of the Greater Nashville Association of Realtors. Springer and the association have fought hard on the issue, creating the Red White and Food campaign in their efforts to allow wine sales in food stores.

The Tennessean reports that the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Bill Ketron, said his primary feeling was relief as the votes were tallied, after awakening in the early morning hours several times this week fearful his measure would fail.

“In the end, I think (senators) saw that’s what the people want,” said Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), according to the newspaper.

Ketron and other backers of the bill worked late into the night again Wednesday, trying to iron out details on the wine-in-grocery legislation.

The plan presented Thursday as an amendment to Senate Bill 837 combined two measures making their way through the House. The few differences between the two versions favored grocery stores and their allies.

One provision says stores need to be only 1,200 s.f. to sell wine—a threshold that brings in more convenience stores. Analysts for the state legislature estimate that about 2,000 stores in Tennessee could try to sell wine under that standard.

Another difference is the licensing fee grocery stores would have to pay annually to sell wine. The House version sets it at $2,000. The Senate would lower it to $850—the same amount liquor stores pay.

Those differences could derail the legislation. But with the Senate version passing by a wide margin, backers said they are optimistic the House will approve a measure.

The House Finance Committee now takes up wine-in-grocery stores legislation, with the job of reviewing its impact on the state budget.

Legislative analysts estimate the Senate version would net about $7.5 million a year in new revenue once grocery stores begin selling wine. Local governments would collect about $6 million in new revenue, they say.

The full House could take up the legislation sometime next month, the Tennessean reports.

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