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House ‘whiskey & Wheaties’ bill clears another panel — barely

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The House “whiskey & Wheaties” bill has limped out of another committee with a one-vote margin.

And that was after its sponsor fixed a problem that could have cost the Department of Business and Professional Regulation more than $250,000 in lost liquor license revenue.

The legislation (HB 81) cleared the Government Operations and Technology Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday by a 7-6 vote. It previously stumbled out of the Careers and Competition Subcommittee on an 8-7 vote.

The proposal, which aims to let retailers sell hard liquor in their main stores, has fractured the Republican and Democrat caucuses alike. Now, state law requires retailers to sell distilled spirits in a separate shop.

Lawmakers have been caught in the middle between big-box stores like Wal-Mart, who want a repeal of the liquor “wall of separation,” and independently-owned liquor store operators who say they will suffer.

“We talk about not picking winners and losers, but that’s what we’re doing” with the bill, said state Rep. Kathleen Peters, a Treasure Island Republican. “And the losers are going to be small businesses if this bill goes through, there is no doubt in my mind.”

For four years, various lawmakers have filed a proposal to repeal the 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.

Wal-Mart, Target and others say tearing down the wall of separation between liquor and other goods is simply a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience.

Alcoholic beverage retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits and independent owners, have complained the bill is being pushed by the big retailers looking to expand their market reach. Publix Supermarkets also continues to oppose the bill, saying it’s invested in the separate liquor store model.

The panel also accepted an amendment from sponsor Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, to create dual “liquor package store licenses,” with “Type A” licenses going to stores keeping a wall of separation between booze and other retail items. “Type B” licenses would go to those selling liquor in the same general space as other goods.

The catch: Those getting a Type B license also must pay “an additional amount” on top of the annual license fee according to a sliding scale based on population. That makes the bill “revenue neutral,” he told the committee.

Otherwise, a staff analysis showed DBPR, which regulates alcohol, was set to take a $258,720 hit from a reduction in licensing fees, since retailers generally would need one liquor license per location, not two, to sell booze. Some of that money also goes to local governments, the analysis said.

Republican Jamie Grant of Tampa, who voted for the bill, questioned ABC Fine Wine & Spirits’ opposition to the bill, considering their partnership with Drizly, a company that developed a mobile app for on-demand delivery of alcoholic beverages.

That kind of technological advance also “guarantees jobs will be lost,” he said.

ABC’s lobbyist, Scott Dick, at one point told the panel, “It’s too bad this issue has become as contentious as it has, but that’s Tallahassee.”

The legislation next moves to the Commerce Committee. A Senate version (SB 106), which includes a phase-in period, cleared all its review panels and is ready for the floor.

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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