Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday that he would sign a bill seeking to allow wine to be sold in Tennessee supermarkets and convenience stores into law if lawmakers approve it this year.
The Republican governor told reporters that he's neutral on the measure calling for cities and counties decide by referendum whether to allow wider wine sales, but added that he won't stand in the way of it becoming law.
"The whole allowing voting is an interesting concept," Haslam said.
The governor's stance on the issue appears to have warmed since the 2010 governor's race, when he expressed reservations about the proposal that would directly affect the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain owned by the Haslam family.
"We've said all along it's not one of the issues we would engage with," Haslam said Thursday. "If it passes in that form would definitely sign it."
State Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro and fellow Republican Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol announced earlier in the day that their bill would put the decision before the voters in municipalities that currently allow liquor sales.
"Tennesseans deserve the opportunity to vote on this issue," Ketron said. "If you're not buying wine where you shop for food, you don't have to vote for it.
"But we think a lot of Tennesseans will vote for it," he said.
The bill is being met with stiff resistance from liquor store owners and wholesalers, who want to keep the current system that restricts sales of any alcohol strong than 5 percent to liquor stores.
Opponents argue the change would unfairly harm existing small businesses and make higher-alcohol drinks more widely available to minors
"These out-of-state chains like Walmart and Kroger are determined to get more profit out of the state of Tennessee, no matter what the cost," Nashville liquor store owner Chip Christianson, an officer in the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association , said in a written statement.
"Legislators must realize what these corporations are trying to do and stop them in their tracks," he said.
Lundberg said supporters have tried to negotiate with liquor store owners.
"We've gone to the industry and said, 'Let's talk, and meet about what we can do together,'" Lundberg said. "And frankly, they haven't wanted to sit at that table."
Ketron dismissed claims that minors would have easier access to alcohol. He noted that an existing law requiring grocery and convenience store clerks to check IDs for all beer sales would also apply to wine. He proposed changing state law to include liquor stores under the universal carding law.
"It's time that we treat every alcohol sale the same, regardless of where it's sold," he said.
The bill would prevent grocery and convenience stores from selling wine stronger than 18 percent, a move that sponsors said is meant to prevent them from stocking fortified wines. The measure would not authorize grocery stores to sell beer stronger than 5 percent by weight.
"The beer wholesalers don't support the legislation," said Rich Foge, the president of the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association. "But we think that if you're going to put wine in grocery stores up to 18 percent alcohol, then absolutely a high-gravity beer should be allowed to be sold there, side-by-side with other products."
Ketron said he expects the Senate to evaluate the bill before it is brought up by House committees. The measure has the support of the Republican leaders in both chambers of the General Assembly.
"This really is a reasonable piece of legislation that will be good public policy for Tennessee," said House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville said he understands the concerns of liquor store owners, but he wants them to take a more serious approach to finding a compromise.
"I'd like to think that we can get this bill out of committee and get it moving, and we'll have some discussion and figure out where the happy median is," Ramsey said.
There are 586 licensed liquor stores in the state, according to Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission data.