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By two votes, House ‘whiskey & Wheaties’ bill cleared for floor

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In another squeaker, the House version of a bill to allow retailers to sell liquor in their main stores cleared its last committee by just two votes.

The House Commerce Committee on Wednesday OK’d the legislation (HB 81) on a 15-13 vote. It’s now ready to be considered by the full House.

It previously cleared the Government Operations and Technology Appropriations Subcommittee by a 7-6 vote. And it hobbled out of the Careers and Competition Subcommittee on an 8-7 vote.

“Any time you have an issue that revolves around alcohol, you’re bound to expect it to be somewhat controversial for some of the members,” bill sponsor Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, told reporters after the hearing.

The proposal would repeal a Prohibition-era state law requiring retailers to sell distilled spirits in a separate shop. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

Avila amended the bill to make it nearly identical with the Senate version (SB 106), which goes to a final vote in that chamber Thursday. For example, it too requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and would be phased in over several years.

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

If the proposal becomes law, “we are finished,” said Kiran Patel, who owns liquor stores in Melbourne and Palm Bay. “There’s no way we can even compete with” big box stores, which will “put pallets and pallets” of booze out in the open.

But state Rep. Tom Goodson questioned that; the Rockledge Republican noted that Patel and other small businesses already compete on selection and price with chains, just with their liquor offerings in a separate store.

Goodson also was skeptical of claims that mixing whiskey and Wheaties would lead to higher rates of theft or teen drinking, including right in the stores: “If you try to open a Jack Daniel’s bottle these days, you need two knives and a screwdriver.”

Target lobbyist Jason Unger of the GrayRobinson firm told lawmakers the bill meets “customers’—and your constituents’—demands” for more convenience, adding that “competition is good.”

Skylar Zander, deputy director for the pro-free market Americans for Prosperity-Florida, said the separation law needs to be “abolished.”

“This is about consumers, allowing businesses to innovate and to make the market more free,” Zander said in an email.

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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