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Anitere Flores: Gas stations will be carved out of ‘whiskey and Wheaties’ bill

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

Even though the bill sailed through its first committee, state Sen. Anitere Flores Thursday said she would tweak her “whiskey and Wheaties” legislation to make sure it wouldn’t apply to gas station convenience stories.

The Senate Regulated Industries committee cleared the bill (SB 106) to repeal the Prohibition-era state law requiring businesses, such as grocery chains and big-box retailers, to have separate stores to sell liquor.

After critics and committee members raised concerns, Flores – the Senate President pro tempore – said she wanted to make clear it wouldn’t apply to gas station stores, but ran out of time before Thursday’s hearing. This is the fourth year lawmakers have tried to run a bill.

“We were going to do it today, but the definition (of ‘gas station’) is not quite as simple,” she told reporters. “We have to look at what the gas station convenience store issue is, but I am 100 percent committed that at the next committee stop we will exempt” them from being able to sell hard liquor.

The bill was amended in committee, however, to ensure it would not apply to stores within 1,000 feet of a school.

The legislation this year made it out of its first stop with only one ‘no’ vote from state Sen. Keith Perry. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

“I have teenage daughters,” the Gainesville Republican said. “I have a sophomore in college. Alcohol now is pretty available, even with walls, so I certainly have concerns. But it’s not about big business vs. small business.”

As they have before, pure-play liquor store concerns, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits and independent operators, denounced the legislation. They said the bill is being pushed by big retailers looking to expand their market reach.

“There’s no question why this issue keeps coming up: The big box model is suffering as online retailers cannabalize their sales,” Charles Bailes, ABC’s chief executive, told the committee. “They’re looking for things to fill the shelves and liquor is the current thing they’re looking at.”

But Jason Unger, a lobbyist for Target, which supports the change, said “the more Florida is more pro-consumer, the better it is for us and our business.”

When committee chair Travis Hutson asked if Target keeps its booze “next to the Barbie dolls” in states where its sells liquor, Unger said, “We have our spirits where our beer and wine is. We’re very responsible.”

But law enforcement and others still fear increased accessibility. In a statement after the hearing, Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith, said the “harder we can make it for young people to get their hands on alcohol, the more lives we can save.”

“We know we can save lives by keeping alcohol out of reach from our youth,” he said. “If we can save one life as a matter of keeping the wall up, then it is worthwhile.”

But state Sen. Greg Steube earlier had cited state enforcement statistics showing that big box chains and stand alone liquor stores “are pretty dead even” when it comes to minors who sneak past safeguards to buy booze. The Sarasota Republican sponsored a version of the bill in 2015 when he was in the Florida House. 

The Senate bill must next clear the Rules committee before it can be heard on the floor during the 2017 Legislative Session. A House companion (HB 81) has not yet had a hearing.

If passed, Florida would be the 30th state to allows sales of hard liquor in general retail space, advocates say.

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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