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Legislature votes to tear down the ‘liquor wall’

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The Florida Legislature has voted to tear down the booze ‘wall.’

The House, on a by-a-nose vote of 58-57, Wednesday passed the Senate’s bill (SB 106) to allow retailers, at least those who choose to do so, to remove the ‘wall of separation’ between hard liquor and other goods.

The legislation now heads to Gov. Rick Scott. If signed into law, the state will end 82 years of mandating that retailers sell distilled spirits in a separate store from other items. Beer and wine now can be sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

But opponents said their veto campaign has already begun, starting with an argument that the bill will be a “job killer”—a term sure to catch in the jobs governor’s ear. Dozens of independent owner-operators sat in the gallery for the debate, wearing T-shirts saying, “Save Jobs & Small Businesses: Vote No.”

“I’m devastated,” said Amit Dashondi, who owns three liquor stores in Brevard County. “I invested eight years of my life into my business … The governor needs to stand up for us. We’re job creators too.”

The bill also requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in. It further calls for employees over 18 to check customers’ ID and approve sales of spirits by cashiers under 18.

The issue, which was filed for the last four years, has broken down the usual party-line divisions. Republicans joined with Democrats Wednesday to support and to oppose what’s called the “whiskey and Wheaties” measure.

Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, told colleagues in debate he never thought he’d be offering a defense of liquor stores.

“Yes members, we have now entered the Twilight Zone,” he joked, adding he wanted to be “honest about the genesis of this bill,” calling out Wal-Mart and Target by name.

“The big box stores wanted more money; who wouldn’t?” Plakon said. “Are we going to give it to them? I say we don’t.”

Those chains and others have said that tearing down the wall separating liquor is a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience. But Rep. Julio Gonzalez, a Sarasota Republican and orthopedic surgeon, warned of making alcohol even more accessible.

He told of a patient who died in her forties after years of alcohol abuse, leaving a young son. “Kill this bill before this bill kills your neighbor,” Gonzalez said.

Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat, warned that if the bill becomes law, “more alcohol will get in the hands of minors and no good will come of that.”

And Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, said the change will “steamroll small business owners.”

Alcoholic beverage retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits and small, independently-owned liquor stores, have said the measure will be a death knell to pure-play retailers who sell booze.

Publix, the Florida supermarket chain, also opposes the measure because of its investment in its many separate liquor stores.

“This is an industry fight,” Smith said. “This is about Wal-Mart coming to the Legislature, and saying, ‘can you please help us get more market dominance in liquor.’ … Well, I’m not here to make life easier for Wal-Mart.”

Rep. Wengay Newton, a St. Petersburg Democrat, compared the debate to the restaurant scene from Brian DePalma‘s “Scarface,” in which a drunken Tony Montana tells fellow diners, “You need people like me so you can point your fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ “

“Wal-Mart’s the bad guy,” said Newton, who supports the measure.

Rep. Bryan Avila, the Hialeah Republican who sponsored the House measure, said he expected a “tense and contentious” debate on the bill.

“The only thing it does is repeal a law created in the 1930s that has outlived its time,” he said in debate. “It just gives a business an option … (but) I understand that any topic related to alcohol is very difficult.”

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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