When the Associated Press reported last week that the latest effort to allow wine to be sold in Tennessee supermarkets had failed for lack of a sponsor in the state Senate, State Rep. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) says he felt a bit like the newly re-elected Harry Truman in the iconic photo of the president holding the newspaper with the headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” To paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of the bill’s demise has been greatly exaggerated.
The short item, which popped up on the Times Free Press’ website on Feb. 7, was based on a report in the Knoxville News Sentinel which cited Lundberg as saying he had expected a “better fate” for his bill because it would require voters to approve supermarket wine sales in their city or county.
“The story was fine, but the headline (‘Wine in grocery stores bill fails again in TN’) is a misnomer. The bill is not dead,” Lundberg says, with only a hint of amusement.
In fact, Lundberg’s House Bill 560, which seeks a referendum for sale of wine in retail food stores, is supported by Senate Bill 318, sponsored by State Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro). The bill would allow individual cities and counties to decide on the sale of wine in grocery stores or other retail outlets besides liquor stores by popular vote. Lundberg also introduced a bill to make those same sales legal statewide without a vote.
Lundberg’s quest is long, but not quixotic, and is the latest salvo in the battle to undo the state’s tangled web of longstanding liquor laws, which have resulted in Tennesseans crossing the state’s many borders and taking their business to stores in states like Georgia and Virginia where liquor sales are less restrictive.
Lundberg faces powerful opposition from the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, which represents the state’s locally owned liquor distributors and stores, currently the only businesses allowed to sell wine in Tennessee.
Of Lundberg’s attempt—the sixth straight year such a measure has been introduced during General Assembly, dying each previous time—David McMahan, a lobbyist for the association, argues that local referendums would allow big box retailers like Walmart and Costco to spend large amounts of money to spread what he calls “misinformation.”
“I can understand it,” Lundberg says of the opposition. “If you had a monopoly business, you’d be protective, too.”
But while Lundberg couches his bill in “freedom to vote” rhetoric, his motivation is very much economic, a platform that could be called the Wine Economy—and he obviously believes his opponents are, well, stupid.
Like Chattanoogans, Lundberg lives in a border city, in his case the tri-cities area of Bristol in northeast Tennessee.
“My motivation is probably very similar [to those Chattanoogans who would like the option],” says Lundberg. “I live in Bristol, where, like Chattanooga, the state border is literally a mile away. And I see people going to other states to buy wine in a one-stop shop. Tennessee borders eight other states and it’s driving business out of our state.”
During his argument last year, Lundberg referenced Chattanooga, saying that Costco chose to locate its new store in Fort Oglethorpe instead of the Scenic City because Georgia laws allow the company to sell wine.
Besides convenience, Lundberg says, the law would bring jobs and millions of dollars to the state in tax revenue.
“Every bill has a fiscal note,” he says, “and this one makes millions of dollars. The sales tax alone would bring in $22 million a year.”
The state liquor lobby counters that the law would cause local liquor stores around the state to close, eliminating small businesses as big-box retailers like Walmart expand. Distributors would also likely be forced to lower their prices due the volume purchased by large chains.