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‘Whiskey and Wheaties’ bill goes down in House panel

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A proposal to allow big-box grocers and retailers to sell hard liquor in a cordoned-off section of a larger store — the so-called “whiskey and Wheaties” bill, for those keeping score at home in this year’s legislative food fights — was rejected by a House panel Tuesday afternoon, likely bringing an end to the effort supported by retail giants like Walmart and Target this session.

After a debate that took up the lion’s share of the third hour of the panel’s marathon final meeting, committee members voted down the bill by a count of 11-7, with members of both parties debating for and against.

Committee Chairman Jose Felix “Pepi” Diaz cast a losing ‘Yes’ vote on the bill on a day when the chair’s vote had already decided one bill’s fate and came close on others.

The first equally dramatic vote of the bill’s consideration period was on an amendment to the Steube-sponsored strike-all amendment ultimately voted on in the final vote.

State Rep. Jake Raburn, with Steube’s acknowledged permission, introduced an amendment that would have appended powdered alcohol language currently the subject of state Rep. Bryan Avila‘s HB 1247, which is alive but has suffered a setback as a bill to ban the substance outright appears poised to pass the Senate, contradicting House efforts to regulate its sale.

After multiple members groused about Raburn and the House majority log rolling bills with controversial language — including Democratic state Rep. Jared Moskowitz accusing and threatening a hand-written poison-pill amendment in protest — the amendment was defeated by Chair Diaz’s “No” vote after being tied 8-8 following substantial debate.

Unamended, the bill set out to make three changes, as enumerated by Steube: allow big box stores to sell alcohol in an adjoining room with a separate door or barrier; raise the minimum age of cashiers handling liquor to 21; and allow an exemption for museums to sell small amounts of alcohol to exhibition patrons.

The proceeding was replete with fiery testimony, or in Chair Diaz’s phrase, “audience participation.” Retail industry representatives were in support while public health and independent spirits retailers were opposed.

Jen Gavaria on behalf of the Florida Spirits Council and Christina Johnson with Floridians for Fair Business Practices argued that the matter was simply an issue of convenience, and not one of expanding access to alcohol, since identification is required in the smaller rooms that would be designated to sell alcohol.

“This is not a minor access issue,” said Johnson, whose disposition on the bill was changed by the chair from “Information” to “Proponent” after she gave clear signals her business stakeholders were in support.

But others, including a range of rural North Florida concerns and temperance advocates, warned of nefarious implications should the bill advance.

Scott Ashley, who lobbies for Wine & Spirits Distributors of Florida, testified against the measure on the basis that it represented an “expansion of outlets,” a fact that Steube disputed in his close.

“This bill undos 100 years of laws and social norms,” testified Ashley, gravely warning the lawmakers to leave Florida’s current alcohol control regime untouched.

“In Florida we have a funny thing called the ‘quota system’,” referring to Florida’s decades-old law limiting liquor licenses based on population by county in an attempt to downplay his bill’s purported increase in alcohol access.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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