Weekly Obsession: Getting past the wine, and whine, on Capitol Hill

Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 10:05pm

The crippling inconvenience and job-killing oppression of not having wine sold in supermarkets will continue in Tennessee, it seems, for at least another year.

Rep. Matthew Hill — perhaps acting out of principle or perhaps bristling from an earlier slight — cast a deciding vote to kill the bill in his subcommittee, as Speaker Beth Harwell looked on, ready to use her vote had the panel deadlocked, saving it as she had before.

Alas, the speaker sat, dismayed, unable to wrest this favored bill of the legislative Republican establishment from defeat at the hands of the party’s fundamentalist far right, personified by Rep. Hill, whose legislative contributions heretofore have addressed such serious concerns as preventing the United Nations from interfering in Tennessee’s elections.

The notion that Tennesseans be able to purchase wine alongside sandwich bread is the Volunteer State’s legislative zombie, back every year only to be killed, resurrected for the purposes of its own execution.

This particular prohibition is in fact an echo of actual Prohibition. Tennessee’s relationship with spirits is a complicated one — the best example: our most famous alcoholic export is manufactured in a dry county — and, as a result, the liquor laws make little sense in a vacuum, the big takeaway being that, yes, Tennesseans must make one more excruciating stop in order to get a bottle of chardonnay.

At the end of the day, though, this is a pretty silly conversation about a silly law given a silly amount of attention.

While Tennessee is second in the country in meth lab explosions, it’s the threat of wine in supermarkets that brings the police chiefs’ association to the Hill to warn everyone of its dangers like a histrionic 1960s scare film.

It gets outsized coverage because people care, and people care because it’s something they can understand. It doesn’t get changed because inertia is powerful, and it’s especially powerful when propped up by the liquor lobby, for a half-century or more the state’s most powerful lobby, though now the chambers of commerce and the small business associations are challenging for the title.

And while the legislature debates a school voucher program, a charter authorizer that rips power from local governments, and giving permit-holders the right to carry guns pretty much anywhere, we all wait with bated breath to find out if we can finally pick up that bottle of pinot at Publix.

It’s laudable, by the way, that in a year Republicans have spent attacking the conservative principle of localism, the wine bill included a local trigger, giving the voters of cities and counties the decision-making power on this all-important issue. That makes sense as it parallels much of the rest of the state’s liquor laws, but is notable in that the GOP hasn’t shown much interest in letting localities make their own choices.

But now it looks like voters won’t get that choice. The bill lives in the Senate, but will need a revival in the House, and given that this is apparently the most important piece of legislation since the GI Bill, hope persists that it gets another chance.

By the way, had every member of the committee been in the meeting, it’s likely they would have tied, given Harwell that chance to advance the legislation. Alas, Rep. Sherry Jones was at a hearing with the new leadership of the Department of Children’s Services and their efforts to reverse an actually vital piece of government that is in complete disarray.

Some things really are more important than personal convenience.

6 Comments on this post:

By: holdencaufield on 3/15/13 at 3:37

" ... like a histrionic 1960s scare film ... "

Indeed. You would think we would see 'decent townfolk' circling the square in some sort of film noir event.

But alas, we will be the Jethro Bodines, complete with rope belt and frayed highwater pants as long as people like Hill keep the State there.

At the same time, it's like the 'guns in bars' (BS) legislation. Usher in a local bar owner from Hillsboro Village and prop him up with talk of 'wild west gun fights' and 'blood in the streets' and throw a few backwoods politicians in and whip everyone into a frenzy ... there you have it.

By: Loner on 3/15/13 at 8:30

Corporate welfare for the liquor store owners, the distributors and selected wine/liquor producers....campaign contributions for the politicians....and for the consumer? They get the shaft...along with a manure-spreader full of BS from the "NO" voters in the legislature.

Time to man the signs...picket the liquor stores...honk your horns....march on the legislature....uncork your corked up frustration....start stomping on the grapes of wrath...show these public servants who's boss....you need to put the fear of man into them, not the fear of God.

By: NewYorker1 on 3/15/13 at 9:39

A back-wood law for a back-wood state. This is so silly. Grow up people.

By: tomba1 on 3/17/13 at 6:09

I find it interesting and ironic that while Rep. Dale Carr on Tuesday, 3/12/2013, was voting against allowing the citizens of his district and the State to vote on where wine can be sold, 2 days later the citizens of city of Pigeon Forge, in the heart of his district, voted and approved, by a greater than expected margin, to allow liquor by the drink sales in the city. Liquor by the drink has been allowed in other cities in his district, Gatlinburg and his hometown of Sevierville, for a number of years, both having been approved by a vote of the citizens. Yet he denies not only his neighbors and constituents but the citizens of the entire State the right to decide for themselves on where wine can be sold.

This man was elected to his first term last November. With the next election in 2014, let's frequently remind the citizens of district 12, that this man has trampled on their and our rights and he needs to be a "1 and done" State Representative, for the sake of not only district 12 but all of Tennessee.

By: govskeptic on 3/18/13 at 5:48

Mr. Lind, I note you make the Democrat Rep Sherry Jones absence appear so
important from the wine in stores vote, when in fact she remained in the chamber
up to just before the vote, and then went to the room right next door for that
mundane hearing, thus playing the game for the lobbyist opposing the bill.

I'm still not so sure that Speaker Harwell wasn't part of the game as well, having
appointed Mr. Hill to his Chairmanship. Very likely her part was to play the
side of the overwhelming majority of voters, yet let Hill take the other side. It's
just another typical play in this Legislature. Just wait and dread the end of
the session and watch what happens with what passes without discussions.

By: paulalanjones on 3/18/13 at 8:35

Sure, there are much bigger issues our legislature should be dealing with, but this should be a non-issue. We are talking about a bill for a public referendum-- what issues could there seriously be that voters wouldn't be knowledgeable enough to decide for themselves? Unless we were facing some future complicated constitutional challenge, this should have passed quickly through committee and been moved rapidly to the floor for a vote and passed. No need for long hearings, when there is more important work to be done in TN. At some point, this is going to happen. Unless there is something critically important at stake here, doing anything but allowing referendum bill to pass is a waste of everyone's time-- except for the lobbyists, it's well with it for them to keep things as they are.