Matthew Hill (AP file photo)
Republican state Rep. Matthew Hill said Friday he neither supports nor opposes a bill to allow supermarket wine in Tennessee, but he is willing to re-engage in that debate when the 108th General Assembly convenes in January.
Hill was criticized in March when he voted for a version of the legislation in a subcommittee, but later cast the key vote against the measure when it reached the full House Local Government Committee, which he chairs. Now he says he is willing to reset the matter in the committee where it died and change his vote if certain conditions are met.
“I voted the way I did because debate was cut off and amendments were not allowed to be considered,” he said. “I’ve talked with business owners, and they understand it’s a matter of when, not if a bill will pass. I wouldn’t be going into this with my mind made up that I would vote for the bill. There must be debate and discussion, even if it’s an uncomfortable discussion about amendments. If that’s done, we’ll pick up where we left off.”
Current law does not allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell beer stronger than 5 percent by weight, which is equal to roughly 6.5 percent when measured as alcohol by volume. Punchier alcoholic beverages can only be sold in liquor stores, and these stores cannot sell anything but liquor and lottery tickets.
The original proposal simply called for local votes on whether to allow grocery stores to sell wine. But the Senate version of the bill awaiting a full floor vote was amended several times to add provisions to help make up for liquor stores losing their exclusive right to sell wine. They would include allowing package stores to be open on Sundays and holidays, and linking supermarket wine sales to the hours they are currently allowed to sell beer.
The measure would also allow liquor stores to begin selling items like snacks, beer and ice in 2014, regardless of whether local governments had approved supermarket wine sales.
“Picking up where we left off,” as Hill said, means the bill would be reintroduced to the full House Local Government Committee.
“If passed, it would go to the Budget Subcommittee, then the full Finance Committee, to the Rules and Calendar Committee and then to the floor,” Hill said.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said this week that the bill’s failure in the House was a “debacle,” and predicted that the measure will pass the Legislature next year.
“I would agree in this sense: that there was no discussion or debate,” Hill said about Ramsey’s description.
State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, agreed that debate on the subject did not satisfy his understanding of “complete.”
“Most legislators want to make sure there’s an even playing field before they vote for it,” he said. It’s not an easy thing for small business people. But it’s like Matthew says, it’s probably inevitable.”
Around the same time House Speaker Beth Harwell appointed Hill to the powerful Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, he cast the deciding vote that killed the measure. Harwell was standing by at the time to exert her privilege to vote had the tally come down to a tie. A few months later, she replaced Hill on the commission with Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah.
Hill told the Johnson City Press at the time the replacement was temporary and that Carter was put on to help a TACIR study that could lead to changes in the state’s annexation law. But the timing was curious, since Harwell and Republican leaders of both chambers of the General Assembly supported the bill.
Hill said the House speaker did not make the change in response to his action on the wine measure and that he would rejoin the commission when that body had finished its report on annexation was complete.