Updated 4:35 p.m.
Proponents of wine in grocery stores had a bit of a buzz going into a House committee Tuesday only to be sobered later when their legislative effort to put the issue before voters was shot down.
With House Speaker Beth Harwell ready to cast the deciding vote, the decision fell on a 8-7 vote in the House Local Government Committee, rendering her vote useless to break a tie.
“I’m disappointed because I think the people of this state deserve an opportunity to vote on this issue,” said Harwell after the vote, which would have been the second time she had tried to influence the bill’s outcome this year.
“The bottom line is that clearly, overwhelmingly the majority of Tennesseans would like the opportunity to vote on this issue. I wish that would have been the outcome today. It wasn’t. I respect the committee system,” she said.
Rep. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), the longtime sponsor of the push to permit wine sales in grocery stores, said he’s unsure whether he’ll try to push forward with alternative bills to restart the measure. But he added the vote in committee was always narrow.
“It fluctuated almost every time somebody got up to use the restroom, really,” Lundberg said.
Lundberg had been counting on a close vote and said he was surprised that committee Chairman Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) changed his vote from last week’s “yes” vote in a subcommittee to this week’s rejection.
Hill said he was “frustrated” Lundberg and the committee were pushing forward with the bill without taking up a series of amendments some lawmakers wanted in.
“I know there’s a lot of angry people out there and I’m sorry that they’re angry. But do they really want us to pass bad law?” Hill said. “No, of course they don’t.”
State Rep. Sherry Jones (D-Nashville) was also a vote Lundberg said he was counting on. She left midway through the committee to attend a hearing in a committee next door about the Department of Children’s Services.
Jones said she isn’t sure how she would have voted, but said it was more of a priority to attend the DCS hearing than vote on the wine-in-grocery-stores referendum bill.
Earlier, in the Senate, lawmakers managed to add a handful of amendments to the bill to accommodate various stakeholders signing on with the bill.
The bill made its way out of several smaller committees this year, which is the furthest it has ever advanced on the Hill.
“This puts it to bed hopefully for good but at least for this year,” said Chip Christianson, vice president of legislative affairs for the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Association which has opposed the proposal. “It’s never gotten out of committee period before, and the tactic of bringing up the referendum was a novel approach.”
Jarron Springer, president of the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association, said, “We are very disappointed that the House Local Government Committee has chosen not to pass legislation that would allow for local referendums on the sale of wine in retail food stores, especially considering the significant movement so far toward passing the legislation.
“This decision is especially disappointing coming on top of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee’s decision earlier this morning to defer the bill after they voted to create a subcommittee to review possible amendments and spur all sides to come to the table for negotiations.”
Springer added that his group would continue its work to put the issue before Tennessee voters.
While the committee killed the bill, the measure isn’t necessarily dead for the year. Lawmakers could try to insert the language into another bill to start over or the committee could reconsider its actions.