A triad of alcohol-related issues foamed to a head last week in booze-soaked-and-cloaked Chattanooga that could be woven into a reality show dubbed “The Great Chattanooga Wine, Whiskey & Beer Rebellion.”
The State Legislature was once again confronted with the wine-in-grocery-stores bill, a first-time review of a local initiative to allow a whiskey distillery to take root here and a statewide campaign to reform 1950’s-era beer tax policy that is the root cause of Tennessee’s dubious rank as the nation’s highest beer-tax state. That’s a lot of roots.
The long battle in the fight to allow wine in grocery stores finally achieved a moment of victory, passing a crucial State Senate committee on its way to the House and full Senate for review and vote. Concessions in the new bill offer a cherry to liquor store owners, allowing them to operate more than one store and also sell mass-produced beer such as Bud Light and other brands, along with mixers, corkscrews and related products banned from sale in their stores. The new bill also allows each county and city to vote on whether to allow sales of wine in grocery stores. Progress.
An initiative approved by a majority of Hamilton County Commissioners last year that would lift the ban on distilleries here spearheaded by Chattanooga Whiskey also landed in the Capitol where it was met with delay after an entanglement involving distilleries in Gatlinburg. But the local initiative, which would allow cities in Hamilton County in which voters have approved liquor-by-the-drink and local package referendums to OK whiskey distilleries, should arrive without further opposition. Progress.
On Friday, supporters of a statewide campaign to reform Tennessee’s beer-tax policy gathered for a rally at Mellow Mushroom on Broad Street downtown. On hand were the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), Chattanooga area beer distributors, brewers and local beer enthusiasts.
The Beer Tax Reform Act of 2013, filed on Jan. 29 by Sexton and State Sen. Kelsey (R-Germantown), proposes to modernize Tennessee’s beer tax with a simple modification: It would calculate wholesale tax on volume rather than price and solve Tennessee’s odd (and nationally unparalleled) tax policy that currently results in the beer tax rate rising exponentially higher every year.
In 2008, according to proponents, Tennessee caught and passed Alaska as the top state taxer of beer. By 2012, Tennessee had increased that lead by 12 points and, if the state keeps rising at the current average annual price increase of $1.15, in five years the average tax rate will be $42.75 per barrel—29 percent higher than Alaska.
The statewide “Fix the Beer Tax” campaign launched Jan. 30 in Nashville and has since rallied in Memphis, Knoxville and Johnson City, resulting each time in an explosion of social media in support of reform, as it did here.
All three of these efforts are playing a role in dismantling Tennessee’s archaic liquor laws. If any of these bills are passed, Tennessee will take a leap forward into the late 20th century and Chattanoogans will benefit.