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VOL. 133 | NO. 41 | Monday, February 26, 2018

Pre-K Expansion Faces Resistance in Push for Sunday Wine Sales

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Legislation sending revenue from Sunday wine sales to prekindergarten expansion faces a battle on several fronts when it reaches a committee in early March.

The bill sponsored by state Sen. Lee Harris is designed to take the state tax dollars from the sale of wine on Sundays, if that separate bill passes this session, and divert it to a fund designed to increase access for low-income children to prekindergarten classrooms in Tennessee. The bill is set to be heard March 6 in the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

Harris, a Memphis Democrat, points out more than 2,200 Shelby County children participate in a prekindergarten program, and he contends more of those early childhood education classroom are needed in Shelby and across the state.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Lee Harris, a Memphis Democrat, is designed to take the state tax dollars from the sale of wine on Sundays, if that separate bill passes this session, and divert it to a fund designed to increase access for low-income children to prekindergarten classrooms in Tennessee. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

Republican lawmakers disagree, however, including the sponsor of the seven-day wine sales bill.

State Sen. Bill Ketron, who is sponsoring the Sunday wine sales bill after passing legislation enabling grocery stores to sell wine, says “traditionally” legislators don’t “earmark” revenue in legislation, a practice he says can cause trouble.

Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican who is stepping down this year to run for Rutherford County mayor, isn’t sure whether Harris’ proposal will hurt his wine-sales bill.

But even if the money were to be earmarked he would rather send it to a state program for disabled children than prekindergarten expansion, which is generally unsupported by Republicans in the Legislature.

A 2016 report from Vanderbilt University found the academic gains by students in Tennessee’s prekindergarten classrooms started to fade by the first grade and disappeared by the third grade. The study cited inconsistent curriculum and varying teacher quality as the main factors in the academic progress by the children studied, all of whom came from low-income families.

“As an alternative, if the General Assembly wants to go that direction, I would prefer if they want to earmark Sunday sales, I’d prefer it go to our DIDs program (Division of Disabled Services) because we have those with disabilities, and we have a waiting list of over 6,000 people who really need that, and I would rather give a hand out to those people because they suffer every day, compared to free day care,” Ketron says.

Ketron and state Rep. Bill Dunn both assert prekindergarten classes do little to improve student performance, based on the Vanderbilt report.

“As it comes to pre-K, we’ve done two studies and both of them have shown that the kids who go to Tennessee pre-K do worse, so I don’t know why you would want to expand a program that actually harms children,” says Dunn, a Knoxville Republican.

Dunn added it would make more sense to direct state revenue from Sunday wine sales toward alcohol treatment “and the problems that it causes.”

Harris is somewhat surprised at the opposition.

“I would think that the grocery stores would be very supportive, because the most prominent grocery store in the country is Walmart, and that’s one of their top priorities, making sure that we make investments in education,” Harris says. “So I would just assume that they would see an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, take care of their business interests but also take care of their highest social priority. But maybe I’m wrong about that.”

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh is a big supporter of prekindergarten and believes it should be expanded. He says the Vanderbilt study could be having too much impact, and he contends those children who are going to prekindergarten could fall even further behind without the early education opportunity.

“I do think it’s a good bill to call attention to the fact we’re falling behind by not putting enough money in our education system, especially in pre-K and early education,” says Fitzhugh, a Ripley Democrat who is running for governor this year.

A high hurdle

Nevertheless, Fitzhugh also expects the bill to get resistance from the departments of Revenue and Finance & Administration because they likely won’t want to specify money from the general fund for pre-K education.

Republicans say diverting tax revenue toward a prekindergarten fund could cause problems, even though the state earmarks money from fuel taxes for road and bridge construction.

From a procedural standpoint, the bill could run into problems because the state would have to figure out what percentage of wine is sold on Sundays, then send it to a special pre-K fund. That’s because tax revenue on wine is collected at the wholesale level, not at the point of sale.

Rob Ikard, president of the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association, is also concerned the prekindergarten funding proposal could cause some confusion in the legislative process.

Neither he nor Ketron believe the prekindergarten push will lead to the defeat of seven-day wine sales, but they agree it creates another issue to handle in the Legislature.

Seven-day wine sales “is a big push for us,” Ikard says, and the group’s path toward passage is pretty well defined.

“Our perspective is we are open for business on Sundays and that’s a big shopping day for Tennesseans,” he notes.

With more people starting to do their grocery shopping on Sundays, it makes sense to sell wine on that day, he and Ketron believe.

Ketron points out people already can buy a bottle of wine at a restaurant on Sunday, pour one glass, put the cork back in and take it home.

In sponsoring the bill, Ketron says he’s listening to constituents’ requests and doesn’t believe it will hurt small liquor stores.

“By popular opinion people want the opportunity to be able to buy wine seven days a week and on holidays, and we’re going to tie it to the same hours as beer sales,” Ketron says.

Considering himself a free-market proponent, Ketron says government shouldn’t be in the business of telling store owners when they can sell something. He points out store owners will have the option of opening or closing on Sundays.

But when it comes to sending any state revenue from wine sales to prekindergarten education, he believes government should say no.

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

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