House Divided On Whiskey & Wheaties Bill

Mar 15, 2017
Originally published on March 14, 2017 5:42 pm

A contentious plan to let grocery stores sell liquor is still alive in the Florida statehouse. But some are dismissing the issue as insider baseball, and not a real public priority.

Florida lawmakers are once again trying to repeal a Prohibition Era law that builds a wall between hard liquor and less risque groceries. House sponsor Bryan Avila (R- Hialeah) calls the law an unnecessary stumbling block for business.

“Almost a century later this outdated law is still in place!” Avila said.

But many in the chamber are conflicted over the moral and economic implications. Should they defend a law that limits the free market? Or support a plan they fear promotes corporate welfare and underage drinking? Private citizen Theresa Miller made the main moral arguments against the bill.

“I’m sure everyone here knows at least one person, if not more, struggling with addiction or in recovery. Do we really want to tempt them with liquor in a store where they have to shop for their food? Do we really want our children to see alcohol as part of an everyday event when they go grocery shopping?” Miller asked.

Erin Holmes is with the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. She says at least with underage drinking, retailers by and large aren’t the problem, citing a 2005 American Medical Association survey.

“The online survey showed that two out of three teens claimed it was easy to obtain alcohol from their parents’ homes, either with or without their knowledge. Or from relatives and siblings age 21 or older,” Holmes said.

Independent liquor store owners worry the bill will make it easier for big box stores to take over the market. But Christian Camara, with the free market think tank R Street, is challenging that.

“Again there’s no basis for this claim, as states without such a barrier law have robust and thriving liquor store markets. In fact most of these states, the small retailers have a majority of the liquor store licenses, and thus greater market share than the big box retailers,” he said.

Liquor store owner Rory Eggers represents the Florida Independent Spirits Association, and he thinks the issue shouldn’t even be on the table. He says the debate comes from the deep pockets of Walmart and Target, not any public need.

“Other than in committee rooms such as this, I have never heard any customer or taxpayer complain about the extreme difficulties and hardships that they’ve had to overcome to purchase alcohol. There’s simply no outcry for this bill!” Eggers said.

Lawmakers have been weighing the issue for years. But Representative James Grant (R- Tampa) says the debate is irrelevant. And resistance is futile. The real threat, he says, is online delivery services like Drizly.

“If we’re going to have a narrative about the proliferation of alcohol or the impulse buy of alcohol, and we're not going to take very seriously the fact that it is completely legal and happening in our backyard that on demand, mobile delivery of liquor is happening, then I think we’re missing the bill, members. Missing the ball, members. So that’s why I’ll be supporting this bill today,” Grant said.

The measure barely passed its second committee stop Tuesday, with a 7 to 6 vote. The Senate companion bill is ready for a full hearing on the floor.

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