LITTLE ROCK — Lawmakers on Wednesday sent to the governor's desk a bill to allow grocery stores in wet counties in Arkansas to sell wine from any winery.
Senators voted 18-4 to concur in a House amendment to Senate Bill 284 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, giving the measure exactly the number of votes needed for passage in the 35-member Senate. The vote gave final legislative passage to the bill, which previously passed 18-11 in the Senate and 53-34 in the House.
State Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, is a co-sponsor of the bill.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson was neutral on the bill while it worked its way though the Legislature. A spokesman said Wednesday the governor will review the bill before deciding whether to sign it.
The bill would end a restriction in current law that lets grocery stores in wet counties sell only wines from "small-farm wineries," defined as wineries that produce no more than 250,000 barrels per year.
Fees paid by grocery stores for wine permits would go into a fund that would provide grants to help support Arkansas' wine industry.
Wal-Mart Stores and Kroger are among the businesses supporting the bill. Many liquor store owners oppose the measure, saying they could not compete with large chains under the restrictions currently imposed on them, including one that limits a liquor store owner to holding no more than one liquor store permit.
In efforts to win support from liquor store owners, the bill was amended to allow liquor stores to sell food products that complement alcoholic beverages, and the large grocery chains have pledged not to push for elections to turn dry counties wet for the next eight years — a boon for liquor stores that are adjacent to dry counties.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, spoke against the bill Wednesday on the Senate floor.
"There are at least 30 small liquor stores that are in my district. I had them mapped," she said. "Every single one of them will be at risk."
After the Senate adjourned, Hester said he did not believe the bill would endanger liquor stores.
"We can look at other states and see that the liquor stores are surviving and doing fine even with their grocery stores having access to full liquor, and this is certainly not giving our grocery stores that access," he said.