Lawmakers looking at tearing down 'liquor wall'

A measure that would allow Floridians to mix vodka and veggies in their shopping carts --- something prohibited for more than eight decades --- sailed through a Senate committee on Thursday.

The Regulated Industries Committee, in a 9-1 vote, backed the latest proposal (SB 106) to repeal a Depression-era law requiring liquor stores and bars to be separated from groceries and other retail goods, commonly referred to as the "liquor wall."

The measure could be a boon to some "big box" retailers. Meanwhile, lawmakers are looking to exclude some small gas stations and neighborhood convenience stores if the proposal becomes law.

The proposal, which has failed to advance in past sessions, pits retailers Wal-Mart and Target, both in favor of the repeal, against Lakeland-based shopping giant Publix and ABC Fine Wine & Spirits.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said she doesn't see the proposed change causing small independent liquor stores to go out of business, as they would continue to attract "niche" customers.

"It's a whole different demographic," Gibson said in voting for the proposal. "I go to (an) ABC (in Jacksonville). There is a Wal-Mart I can take the next exit to go to that has a (separate) liquor store there, but I go to that ABC because they have certain brands that I don't believe that a Wal-Mart will ever have."

Sen. Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican who cast the lone vote against the measure, said after the meeting he's open to revisions in the bill but for now has concerns about access to alcohol by minors.

"I have teenage daughters, and I have a sophomore in college, and access now is pretty available, whether in bar or places," Perry said. "It's not the competitiveness that I'm concerned about. I think we should have less barriers for business."

The proposal is intended by its sponsor, Miami Republican Anitere Flores, to give shoppers more convenience. The bill would allow hard spirits such as whiskey and rum to be sold alongside beer, wine and groceries in traditional supermarkets and other stores that sell groceries. The measure would also allow liquor stores to expand their grocery options.

Jason Unger, a lobbyist for Target, said the change would "enable us to meet our customers' demands."

Publix views stand-alone liquor stores directly adjacent to its regular stores as a business model.

Scott Dick, a lobbyist for the Florida Independent Spirits Association, said the change would give the big-box operators an unfair competitive advantage over small liquor-store owners.

"We operate under a level playing field today," Dick said.

Charles Bailes, CEO of ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, argued big-box stores have been able to compete under the existing law and that there hasn't been a public outcry for the repeal. He also said the change would make liquor more accessible for minors to steal.

Bailes noted that earlier this month an 18-year-old was arrested on multiple charges after telling a Wal-Mart manager in The Villages that she drank five cans of beer from the beer aisle.

"Big box retailers have difficulty controlling what goes on in their stores, especially those that are minimally staffed," Bailes said.

The bill could see some revisions in the coming weeks.

Several committee members suggested greater fines for businesses repeatedly found selling liquor to minors. Also, they pointed to a need to exclude small gas stations and convenience stores that now have licenses to sell beer and wine from obtaining liquor licenses.

A legal definition related to excluding certain gas stations and convenience stores from obtaining liquor licenses is already being crafted but remains a tricky issue, Flores said.

"7-Eleven bad, Wawa I don't know," Flores told the committee. "I'm open to suggestions."

Flores added that she'd be willing to consider adding higher fines for stores and people found repeatedly selling liquor to minors as suggested by Committee Chairman Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, and supported by some opponents of the repeal.

The committee's support Thursday indicated that the proposal could have a better chance than past versions of the bill that failed to advance through the committee process in the House and Senate. The 2017 legislative session starts March 7.

Rep. Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican who is sponsoring the House version of the bill (HB 81), said on Wednesday that consumers should be allowed to decide what they prefer.

"Government's role is not to determine who wins and who loses in the market," Avila said. "I think consumers should be the one to determine whether a particular business or company is successful."


Information provided by The News Service of Florida.