- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Legislation that would let voters decide whether their cities or counties allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores has been sent to the governor, who is expected to sign the measure into law.

The Senate, which passed its version of the bill 23-8 in January, on Monday approved minor changes made by the House when the lower chamber passed its version of the bill 71-15 last month.

“This bill has been around a long time,” said Senate sponsor Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro. “I think the members of this body and members in the House actually listened to the people who are going to have that opportunity to purchase wine in grocery stores.”

The proposal would grant authority to cities and counties that have package stores or liquor-by-the-drink sales to hold referendums on whether to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores.

It also allows local votes to take place as early as this fall but would not allow supermarket wine sales until July 2016 at the earliest.

Under current law, supermarkets and convenience stores can sell beer containing up to 6.5 percent alcohol by volume. Anything stronger can be sold only in package stores, which can’t sell anything beyond booze and lottery tickets.

In working out their differences, lawmakers agreed to require convenience stores to have at least 1,200 square feet to qualify for a wine sales license, and for the licensing fee to be $1,250.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s stance on the issue has 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.

The Republican governor told reporters during debate on the bill last year that although he was deferring to lawmakers on the matter, he would sign the legislation. His spokesman said in an email after Monday’s vote that “the governor will review the legislation in its final form before taking action on it, but I anticipate he’ll sign it.”

Supporters of a referendum would need to present a petition containing the signatures of registered voters making up the equivalent of 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. In Shelby County, it would take nearly 23,000 signatures, and in Nashville it would take about 15,500.

While the concept of supermarket wine sales has broad public support according to various polls, the measure had failed in several consecutive legislative sessions amid opposition from liquor wholesalers and package store owners.

“After years of hard work, I’m proud to see this issue finally settled in the Legislature,” said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. “This bill is a solid compromise that allows for the expansion of consumer choice while protecting small businesses that took risks and invested capital under the old system. This bill puts the issue where it belongs: in the hands of the people of Tennessee.”