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House Barely Passes 'Liquor Wall' Bill, Sending It To Governor

Michael via flickr

The Florida House has voted to tear down the so-called liquor wall by a razor-thin margin. It’s a rare issue that doesn’t fall along party lines, giving a brief glimpse into lawmakers’ individual beliefs.

Credit Michael via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/lostinangeles/

Wednesday’s House vote on a Prohibition-era liquor law couldn’t have been closer. It came to fifty-eight yeas and fifty-seven nays, close enough to drive anyone to drink. It may sound strange, but allowing grocery stores to sell hard liquor next to beer and wine became one of the headline issues this session. Coral Springs Democratic Representative Jared Moskowitz was keeping track as the hours of debate ticked away.

“We spent more time asking questions on this bill than we did on an $80 billion budget. Members it’s time to move on from this issue,” Moskowitz.

So why is this such a big deal? Longwood Republican Representative Scott Plakon has an idea.

“But let’s be honest about how we got here? The big box stores wanted more money. Who wouldn’t?” Plakon asked.

Since the 1930s, the state has kept hard liquor out of grocery stores, the Whiskey away from the Wheaties. Mom and pop shops, and larger retailers like Publix have invested in building stand-alone stores. But Target and Walmart want to tear down that metaphorical wall.

“I was elected by constituents to do many, many, many things. But nowhere on the list of reasons why I am here is to make life easier for Walmart,” Guillermo Smith said.

Orlando Democratic Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith is worried about small businesses. Palm Bay Republican Representative Ray Fine doesn’t want to put more liquor in the hands of minors and alcoholics.

“If people agree that by creating more access to this product, more of it will be sold, then it is impossible not to believe that the negative affects won’t scale linearly,” Fine said.

But supporters say alcohol won’t flood the market, because the bill won’t change how the state hands out liquor licenses. And Hialeah Republican Representative Bryan Avila isn’t convinced underage drinking will increase.

“The U.S. Substance Abuse Administration has said that only 6% of individuals get their alcohol from theft in stores. The overwhelming majority of people get their alcohol, whether beer, wine or spirits, from their own home,” Avila said.

This bill comes at a time when Floridians can get liquor delivered to their homes at the touch of a button. Tampa Republican Representative James Grant says if lawmakers are really worried about small retailers, or increased access, they should get with the times.

“When Amazon announced two weeks ago that by prime you could say, ‘Hey Alexa, I want a handle of X.’ That is access!” Grant said.

This is a rare issue that doesn’t fall along party lines. Guillermo Smith says that’s a good thing.

“That means members have to reflect upon themselves. How does this affect my constituents? But also, how does this affect my core values?” Guillermo Smith said.

Representative Larry Lee, a Port St. Lucie Democrat, says some of his colleagues weren’t ready to make that call.

“On this very vote! You’re gonna find people that can’t make their mind up. They’re gonna walk out that door, or have already walked out the door,” Lee said.

In a rather dramatic ending, five lawmakers didn’t vote, letting the measure barely slip across the finish line. The Senate has already ok’ed the bill. Tearing down the liquor wall is now up to the governor.

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As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.
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