Florida: Opposition mounts to tearing down the liquor wall
Source: Tallahassee Democrat
Feb. 15, 2017
The Florida Legislature is considering the repeal of a Prohibition-era rule that restricts liquor sales to package stores. Big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target want to offer vodka, gin, whiskey and other spirits along aisles featuring groceries and goods consumed by minors.
Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, said the current restrictions were put in place in the 1930s to ease the sale of alcohol back into society and have outlived their purpose. When introducing the bill to the House Careers & Competition Subcommittee, Avila tried to blunt his opponents’ coming attacks. He told the panel fears that out-of-state retailers would drive small independent stores out of business have not happened in states that have adopted similar proposals.
“Opponents will also say this bill will give minors greater access to alcohol and encourage underage drinking,” said Avila. “I assure you it does not.”
This isn’t the first time state legislators have considered tearing down the “liquor wall.” Lawmakers have considered allowing whiskey and Wheaties to be sold side-by-side the last three sessions.
Mom and pop stores and big independent retailers like ABC Liquors oppose the measure because it changes rules that have existed for 80-some years. Opponents have a big player in their corner, Publix Super Markets. The state’s biggest grocer operates 775 stores and would face a major remodeling of stores and a possible restructuring of leases if the bill were to succeed.
Two Tampa moms whose adult children are battling addiction drove to Tallahassee to testify against the proposal. Ellen Snelling and Teresa Miller underscored the argument that no one other than out-of-state retailers were promoting the bill.
“I think Wal-Mart and Target and others need to make a compelling argument to change it,” said Snelling. “I feel like convenience and profit are not compelling arguments when you look at public health and safety.”
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard, is a marketing expert who has used grocers’ preferred customer cards to track customers’ preferences to inform inventory and other decisions. He declared the “dirty little motivation” behind the bill is to increase hard liquor sales. He predicted a 100 to 200 percent increase in sales if the proposal goes through.
“Why?” asked Fine. “Because today people can’t make an impulse purchase of hard liquor. You actually have to choose to go to the liquor store.”
Rep. Julio Gonzales, R-Venice, lectured Avila for presenting a bill that failed to incorporate the public safety compromises worked out last session. That bill kept the separation requirement but allowed a door between the liquor and main stores. Gonzales declared Avila’s proposal nowhere ready “for the finish line.”
Earlier, Avila had mentioned the Competition Committee was the first of three stops and he pledged to get the bill in the right posture.
The committee approved it on an 8 -7 vote.
“I’m simply trying to make sure we protect the free market system going forward and increase competition and tackle public safety issues,” said Avila, when asked afterward if he plans to respond to his opponents’ concerns.
Rep. Haley Beshears, R- Monticello, the committee chair, voted against the measure and said Avila has some work to do before its next committee stop.
“This bill will not make it through in its current form,” said Beshears.
A Senate companion measure is ready for a floor vote when lawmakers meet in session next month.