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Liquor ‘wall of separation’ could fall in Florida

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A bill to allow retailers to sell hard liquor in the same store as other goods is one step closer to passing the Legislature.

On Tuesday, the House decided to take up the Senate’s version of the “whiskey & Wheaties” legislation (SB 106) out of a “spirit of compromise,” bill sponsor Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican said.

After two and a half hours of questions and a string of amendments that were defeated or withdrawn, the House could take a final vote on the bill as early as Wednesday. Its version has been struggling out of committees on one- and two-vote margins.

The Senate bill would repeal a Prohibition-era state law requiring businesses, such as grocery chains and big-box retailers, to have separate stores to sell liquor. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

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

It still faces strong opposition, with Avila having to defend against a parade of horribles brought up in questions.

Rep. Tom Goodson, for example, brought up that the 955 pure-play liquor stores in the state employ about 1,200 workers, and he worried whether the big box chains would put them out of business.

Wal-Mart, Target and others have said that tearing down the wall of separation between liquor and other goods is a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience, but independently-owned liquor stores counter they’ll suffer.

Other alcoholic beverage retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits, say the measure is a naked play to expand the big-boxes’ market reach.

Last month, Kiran Patel, who owns liquor stores in Melbourne and Palm Bay, told lawmakers that he and other small-business store owners will be “finished.”

“There’s no way we can even compete with” big box chains, he said, which will “put pallets and pallets” of booze out in the open.

Avila didn’t give in Tuesday.

In the 29 other states that sell hard liquor in main stores, “there hasn’t been a rash of underage drinking, there hasn’t been a rash of alcohol-related incidents, there hasn’t been a rash of cases of DUIs, (and) the small businesses there have continued to compete, with no decrease in the number of independent liquor stores,” he said.

Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, tried to amend the bill with a provision that no one under 21 could work in a store where hard liquor was sold.

Publix, the Florida supermarket chain that opposes the measure, has said their reading of state law suggested teenage employees would no longer be allowed to work in stores if hard booze was sold there. Publix’s opposition has been rooted in its investment in separate stores.

It’s about choices, Plakon said, mentioning Wal-Mart and saying its choice was to employ teens, sell hard liquor, or keep separate stores. His amendment failed.

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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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