, Port Arthur, Texas

April 23, 2009

Wine bill slips onto Senate agenda with help

AUSTIN — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a known wine connoisseur, isn't always able to drink his favorite vintage when he goes out for dinner. But that could change soon under legislation he is said to be actively pushing.

A bill on its way to the state Senate would let Texans carry their own bottles of wine into liquor-carrying restaurants and then leave with whatever they don't drink. Industry representatives have taken to calling the legislation the "Dewhurst bill."

Glen Garey, a top official at the Texas Restaurant Association, said Dewhurst was frustrated because he couldn't order his preferred bottle when dining out in Austin. The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate and was instrumental in getting the legislation moving, said Garey, the association's general counsel.

"He is the one who refers bills, and he also has a nice wine collection, so he would, I guess, enjoy it if we could in fact allow the practice," Garey said. "There is actually a particular brand of wine he likes ... but we don't carry it at his favorite restaurant, and he had expressed that interest before."

Dewhurst spokesman Rich Parsons said Dewhurst spoke with the Texas Restaurant Association about the bill earlier this year, but he denied that the powerful lieutenant governor wanted it passed so that he could carry his own wine into restaurants.

Parsons said the industry association had "dropped the ball" by not finding a sponsor to file the legislation before last week. Garey agreed the industry had goofed by not finding a sponsor earlier, but said that Dewhurst's intervention this late in the session was crucial.

Neither Garey nor Parsons could name Dewhurst's favorite wine.

As Republican leader of the state Senate, Dewhurst is one of the most powerful leaders in Texas government. He sets the agenda in the chamber, controls the assignments senators get and generally decides where bills get sent. In this case, the wine bill — authored by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands — was not sent through the typical process.

It was introduced so late in the session that the Senate had to agree to allow it to be filed a week ago. Then, instead of being sent to the panel that usually handles liquor issues, it was referred to the Senate Administration Committee, which is set up to deal with internal chamber policy and non-controversial legislation.

The panel passed the bill unanimously, without any testimony, after 8 p.m. on April 20, officials said. It took about three minutes, according to Texas Legislative Service, a bill tracking service. On Wednesday, it was recommended for fast-track Senate approval using a process usually reserved for limited-impact or non-controversial bills, legislative records show.

Williams, author of the bill and chairman of the committee that approved it, declined comment on the legislation. Parsons, the Dewhurst aide, could not say why it went to that panel.

"That's where it was referred," he said.

Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who serves on the Administration Committee, said he never expected a bill with such major statewide implications to make a sudden appearance on the panel's agenda and then to be approved so quickly.

"I was surprised there wasn't any testimony one way or the other," Uresti said. "It's unusual ... I was caught off guard."

The legislation would allow Texans to take bottles of wine to establishments that have mixed beverage permits, allowing them to sell beer, wine and distilled spirits. Most upscale restaurants have such licenses.

The restaurant would be allowed to charge a "corkage fee," for opening and serving the wine, but the consumer could take what's left after meal ends.

Garey, the restaurant association representative, said his industry group supports the legislation, which also contains one of its pet initiatives — getting authority to separately list the 14 percent mixed beverage tax on tabs that the drinking public sees.

The restaurant industry has long promoted the idea of allowing people to see how much of their liquor tab is going to the government — and not necessarily to the dining establishment.

SOURCE: The Associated Press