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VOL. 131 | NO. 39 | Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Haslam Questions Need to Put Cap on Liquor Store Ownership

ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that he is unsure of the need to restore limits on liquor store ownership that existed before a new state law to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets.

The state liquor store association was a major opponent of the 2014 move to allow grocery stores to begin stocking wine this summer. And as a part of an unrelated move to allow stores to begin taking wine deliveries before July 1, the liquor stores are looking to head off competition from large retailers by seeking a two-store ownership limit.

"My gut feeling is to leave the cap off," said Haslam, whose family owns the country's largest truck stop chain.

The Senate State and Local Government committee did not debate the measure before unanimously voting to send the bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, to a full floor vote.

The Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association was a longtime opponent of the popular effort to allow supermarket wine sales, and removing restrictions on ownership was a concession to package store owners as part of the 2014 law.

The group's lobbyist, David McMahan, has said owners had originally thought that lifting the cap would help them compete with grocery store chains that can sell wine. But now they worry about being squashed by larger competitors coming into the state.

McMahan said there's a public interest in limiting how a "controlled product" can be sold. "I don't think that cheaper, more available liquor everywhere is what Tennesseans want," he said.

Justin Owen, the president of the conservative Beacon Center think tank, said he considers the package store owners' arguments to be "ridiculous" and contrary to free market principles.

"If you don't want to make liquor more available, then get out of the liquor business," he said.

The state doesn't put caps on ownership of other businesses such as beauty shops or athletic stores, he said.

"It's not the government's role to protect the bottom line of liquor stores," Owen said.

Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville was main supporter of the effort to bring wine to supermarkets that was long thwarted by the liquor retailers and wholesalers. She said protecting the interests of package store owners "wouldn't be a top priority," but said she'd leave it to her House colleagues to decide on the issue.

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville and the main sponsor in the House, has said he would withdraw the bill if there are attempts to make major changes. Several lawmakers are still unhappy with state wine laws that include a mandatory 20 percent mark and a ban on Sunday sales.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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