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VOL. 37 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 25, 2013

Critics: Give stores time to adjust to wine bill

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Skeptics of a proposal to allow wine to be sold in Tennessee supermarkets and convenience stores say any change in current law should be deferred for several years to give liquor store owners time to adjust to the new competition.

Republican Rep. Ryan Haynes of Knoxville says liquor store owners should be given three to five years to get out of their existing leases or to change their business models if they no longer have the exclusive right to sell wine.

"They need give them the opportunity to do that after they've played by the rules for all these years," he said.

Haynes, chairman of the House's State Government Committee, said any proposal also should allow liquor stores to sell items such as beer, ice and mixers — which would require new equipment and store layouts.

"They'd have to add on and invest a whole bunch of new capital," he said.

There are 586 licensed liquor stores in the state, according to Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission data. More than 3,000 bars and restaurants in the state are permitted to sell liquor by the drink.

Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol and a main sponsor of the proposal, said the implementation of his bill would already be delayed enough by a requirement to hold a local referendum. For most communities, that vote couldn't occur until November 2014, he said.

"So there is already a built-in timeframe not to get defensive, but to do what every other business does: Work on service, work on prices, work on customer service."

Under current law, supermarkets and convenience stores can't sell alcohol stronger than beer, and liquor stores can't sell anything other than wine and spirits. Supporters of the current system include liquor store owners and liquor and beer wholesalers.

Liquor retailers have shown little interest in proposals to allow them to sell other items — or to do away with restrictions that allow them to own no more than a single store in the state.

Lundberg chuckled at arguments from opponents that allowing cities and counties to decide their own rules would create an unfair advantage for supermarkets in areas where wine sales have been approved.

"What I'm laughing at is the liquor industry talking about fairness, I think that's humorous in itself," he said. "The entire way that industry works is based on unfair practices and holding on to a monopoly in any way, shape or form they can."

Lundberg's proposal has the support of House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. Both have expressed optimism that the bill will have a better chance than in past years because of changes to committee makeups in both chambers.

Lundberg predicts that even his colleagues who are wary about changing wine-sale laws will be careful about stating their position until it comes time to vote on the bill.

"There are very few people who are drawing that line in the sand to say 'no,'" he said. "Because to me you're saying that, first and foremost, to your local community that would be voting on it."