'Liquor wall' closer to being torn down

- A decades-old prohibition on liquor being sold alongside groceries and other retail goods moved closer to repeal Wednesday as a massive lobbying battle continued.

The so called "liquor wall" bill (HB 81) narrowly advanced out of the House Commerce Committee in a 15-13 vote --- sending the measure to the House floor --- after being amended to more closely resemble a bill (SB 106) that is up for a vote Thursday in the Senate.

House bill sponsor Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, said the amendment addressed concerns of other House members about the bill, which also narrowly passed two subcommittees.

"I think anytime that you have an issue that revolves around or has anything relating to alcohol, you're bound to expect it to be somewhat controversial for some of the members," Avila said.

Both proposals seek an end to a Depression-era law requiring liquor stores to be separate from groceries and other retail goods.

The issue has led to repeated legislative battles in recent years, pitting Walmart and Target, which want to stock liquor on shelves near other goods, against Publix and ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, which have stand-alone liquor stores as part of their corporate blueprints.

Walmart and Target lobbyists say the change is needed to meet customers' demands and convenience.

Target lobbyist Jason Unger said if the proposal becomes law, the Minnesota-based company, with 122 locations in Florida, would still have to wait for liquor licenses to become available from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

"I also want to point out that local zoning in your counties and cities will still control whether Target can sell spirits in its stores," Unger said.

Opponents argue the change will impact small liquor stores, eliminate jobs, result in a greater ability for minors to get their hands on liquor and lead to more impulse-buying of alcohol.

"I know when I'm in a big box store it's often impossible, impossible to find somebody to help me," said Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, an Orlando Republican who voted against the bill. "So, the thought that somebody may actually be there to see a minor stealing a bottle of spirits, that was a compelling point."

But Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Republican who supports the proposal, said the growth of app-based home liquor delivery services may have a bigger impact on the fate of the different businesses.

"What is gobbling up the small business now is not whether a particular good goes into a big box store," Grant said. "What will have the effect is that we now have the ability, with the downloaded mobile application and a credit card, to not even have to get in our car to go to a store to buy it, regardless of what name is on the store, how big that store is and what protections are in place."

Avila's amendment Wednesday included provisions in the Senate measure that would stagger the repeal of the law over several years; prohibit new package stores from being licensed within 1,000 feet of schools; and require that small bottles, 6.8 ounces or less, be displayed only behind the counter.

Chuck Kelley, owner of Beach Liquor in Panama City, Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Crestview, called the delayed implementation "selective relief" designed to let some businesses get out of existing leases.

Both bills also would require checkout clerks under the age of 18 to be supervised by someone 18 or older when alcohol is being purchased.

Avila's proposal does not include a Senate prohibition on liquor licenses being issued to gas stations that are not linked with locations providing more than 10,000 square-feet of retail space. The Senate provision would allow larger retailers that sell beer and have gas memberships, such as Sam's Club and Costco, to obtain liquor licenses.

Avila said he's still working that issue with the various parties involved in the legislation.

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