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VOL. 42 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 6, 2018

Bible provides political cover for 7-day liquor sales passage

By Sam Stockard

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Buoyed by Bible verses and compromise giving liquor stores a head start on Sunday sales, legislation allowing grocery stores to sell wine on Sundays has passed the Senate on a 17-11 vote.

The Wednesday decision comes in the wake of a 55-35 House vote earlier in the week and sends the measure to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature. The only days stores won’t be allowed to sell alcohol under the legislation will be Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Dissuading those opposed to sales of alcohol on a “holy day,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Ketron, pointed toward more than 200 biblical passages touting wine in moderation. He touched on the story of Jesus’ first miracle in the Book of John in which he turns water into wine during a wedding ceremony at his mother’s request, as well as the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, which says, “Drink your wine with a joyful heart.”

In contrast, the Bible contains only 20 verses castigating the use of alcohol, most of those discouraging drunkenness, he said.

“But I’m not here to represent myself and my feelings,” said Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican. “I’m here to represent the people who are asking for this,” some 70 percent of Tennesseans who want wine sales on Sunday because it fits their lifestyle.

Ketron, who passed legislation previously enabling wine sales in grocery stores, said he had been working since last August on the bill and put in several compromises to help owners of small liquor stores worried about tougher competition.

“A lot of concessions had to be made with the retailers,” he said.

Out of some 700 retailers, though, more than half notified him they wanted to be able to open seven days a week to compete, Ketron said.

The bill was heavily amended earlier in the session to help those stores stay open or to soften the landing for those who go out of business.

One of the main parts of the agreement with retailers would allow liquor stores to open on Sundays as soon as the governor signs the legislation into law, well ahead of the Jan. 1, 2019 starting date for grocers to sell wine on Sundays.

The measure also sets a 10 percent minimum markup for liquor, removes a requirement that liquor stores sell their products back to wholesalers if they liquidate by enabling them to sell to consumers at a discounted rate and puts a three-year moratorium on statewide liquor store licenses. Such a move is designed make liquor licenses more valuable, enabling store owners to sell them if they decide to go out of business, Ketron says.

He won passage of the legislation despite opposition from state Sen. Lee Harris, who argued mom-and-pop liquor store owners will be hurt by big business.

“They will go out of business because they have some reliance on the stability of our law,” said Harris, a Memphis Democrat, adding, “Now we are openly contemplating putting them out of business.”

Seven-day sales for grocery stores will force small businesses, most of which have only four employees, to open on Sunday in order to compete, raising their payroll, Harris pointed out. Worst of all, though, they will lose their Sundays.

“I am worried about these small (business) men and women who used to have their Sunday set aside for faith and family,” Harris said.

Industry outlook

Rob Ikard, president of the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association, said after the vote Sunday has become the biggest shopping day of the week for families. He agreed with Ketron that the bill contained a number of concessions to the liquor store industry, making it fairer for businesses while meeting consumer needs.

“They want to buy wine when they buy their food, just like they can buy it where they buy their food,” he said.

On the other hand, Memphis retailer Ryan Gill of Doc’s Wine, Spirits & More contends independent retailers are going to be hurt by the seven-day sales measure.

“While we’ve spent the last two years finding ways to make the customers experience better at Doc’s than at Kroger or Whole Foods, there’s still one thing that we can’t fight, which is convenience,” he said in an email.

Since Sundays have become grocery stores’ single biggest sales day, liquor stores will lose even more customers to “convenience,” he said.

Doc’s was a new store when the Legislature passed the bill allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores, meaning it came in under the new rules. Other retailers across the state, though, “took such a large hit that they’re just now beginning to recover.

“If Sunday sales has even half of the negative impact that the (wine in grocery stores) bill did on independent retailers, I fear it will be the straw that broke the camel’s back in many cases,” Gill said.

Independent retailers such as Gill aren’t the only ones upset about the legislation.

In spite of Ketron’s biblical argument, the Tennessee Pastors Network issued a statement calling approval of the measure “despicable.”

“The Bible Belt state of Tennessee had enjoyed a safe, sacred day of worship with liquor stores being closed on Sunday,” said Pastor Dale Walker, president of the organization. “This will now change radically. The Republican supermajority in Tennessee has become the party of ‘Big Liquor,’ passing beer, wine and liquor sales in many new venues, including rural areas, for the first time.

Walker claims families and church vans will be in even greater danger on roads each Sunday. He noted he has never had a liquor lobbyist or “liquor-loving” politician help him comfort the family of a drunk-driving victim.

“The politicians who voted against this bill will have clean hands and a clear conscience,” Walker said. “The other politicians who voted for it will have the blood of the innocent on their hands with a trail of misery that always follows alcohol and wicked liquor.”

House action

Earlier in the week, Rep. Jerry Sexton, who previously tried to make the Bible the state’s official book, called for removing liquor stores from the bill and for allowing liquor and wine sales for only one hour on Sundays.

Sexton, a Bean Station Republican from East Tennessee, argued the House shouldn’t be setting parameters on consumption of alcohol, just like it shouldn’t be voting on when people can take a “hit of marijuana or a snort of cocaine.”

He contended such a change in alcohol laws will increase addiction and make roads more dangerous.

The House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Gerald McCormick, pointed the bill’s original intent was to allow people to buy wine at grocery stores “when they wanted to and not when we told them to.” But to make it more equitable for liquor store owners, the measure had to be changed, he said.

Fending off arguments the bill does nothing but benefit big stores such as Walmart and Kroger, McCormick said liquor store owners have gone through “a real readjustment in their business model” because of the grocery store wine sales law.

Concessions in the bill should give liquor store owners “some protection,” the Chattanooga Republican said.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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