TALLAHASSEE (NSF) - A heavily lobbied measure intended to knock down a decades-old prohibition on selling liquor in grocery and large retail stores narrowly continued to advance in the House on Tuesday.
The Government Operations & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee voted 7-6 to support an amended proposal (HB 81) that would end a Depression-era law requiring liquor stores and bars to be separated from groceries and other retail goods, an issue commonly referred to as the "liquor wall."
The contentious bill --- sought by Wal-Mart and Target and opposed by Publix and ABC Fine Wine & Spirits --- needs to make it through one more committee in the House and awaits a floor vote in the Senate (SB 106).
House sponsor Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, rejected claims by opponents that his legislation, three years in the making, will increase access to liquor by minors and harm existing businesses.
"While shopping at Publix is a pleasure, certainly their argument is not," Avila said. "The only reason the antiquated law is being opposed is to maintain the status quo."
Before the vote, Avila proposed an amendment that would sort alcohol licenses into two categories, one for businesses that seek to remain stand-alone for liquor, the other imposing fees --- based on county population --- for those that want to sell liquor in the same stores as other goods.
Avila said he's also considering additional changes for when the proposal goes to the Commerce Committee. That could include requiring cashiers to be 18 or older when liquor is purchased and increasing penalties on businesses that are found selling to minors.
He also indicated he is open to proposals in the Senate bill that would require small bottles, 6.8 ounces or less, to be displayed only behind the counter and phasing in the law over a four-year period.
Still, the House bill, which appeared to stall a week ago, remains controversial for many.
"The losers are clearly going to be the small businesses," said Rep. Kathleen Peters, a Treasure Island Republican who voted against the bill.
Thomas Culligan, representing Publix, said in opposing the measure that the supermarket chain may be able to support a delayed implementation. Publix has opened stand-alone liquor stores in many shopping centers that also include grocery stores.
"We've invested so much in the stores that we have built out in the state," Culligan said. "We also have a number of leases that we'd like to see expire if this does happen."
Pat McClellan, owner of the Flora-Bama lounge and package store in the Panhandle, said the change would result in a greater ability for minors to get their hands on liquor and would lead to more impulse-buying of alcohol.
"It ain't right to put the apple schnapps next to the apple sauce," McClellan said.
Proponents contend abolishing the "outdated" law is necessary to provide more convenience to shoppers, reduce regulations and save money for businesses.
Joseph Salzverg, a lobbyist for Target, said the change would allow the Minnesota-based company to meet customers' needs and expectations.
"The way Target structures their business model is a racetrack type of shopping," Salzverg said. "That's why we don't currently operate bifurcated stores in the state of Florida."