Full Senate Votes To Tear Down 'Liquor Wall'

Mar 23, 2017

The Florida Senate has approved a bill to tear down the regulatory wall between grocery stores and liquor stores. But the plan has independent retailers worried.

Credit Thomas Hawk via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/

Ryan Patel manages an independent liquor store in Tallahassee. He says it’s hard enough to compete with chain stores as is.

“Well, to start with, we’re already having a very, very tough competition with them. The price at which they price their goods, it’s close to impossible to even match that price or even come close to it,” Patel said.

That competition could get even steeper. The Florida Senate has voted to tear down the liquor wall. It’s a Prohibition Era law that prevents grocery stores from selling whiskey next to the Wheaties, as the political slogan goes. Miami Republican Senator Anitere Flores is behind the bill this year.

“This is not a mandate, but they can if they want to. And what this bill does in its current form is it gives retailers five years to make that transition,” Flores said.

Powerful special interests are taking strong stands on the bill. Publix, which has built separate stores under the current law, is an opponent. But Target and Walmart stand to gain from it. Clearwater Republican Senator Jack Latvala says this is a priority of corporate citizens, not voters.

“I have never had in my fifteen years of being up here, fifteen sessions, never had a person call my office, or contact me and said we need to make the purchase of liquor more convenient for me,” Latvala said.

And the opposition ramped up from there. Senator Daphne Campbell, a North Miami Beach Democrat, worries putting liquor in grocery stores will make it easier for minors to steal.

“The voters stood for hours to put me in office. And I’m gonna come here to vote for a bill that will kill my own youngsters? How can I do this?” Campbell asked.

And bill sponsor Anitere Flores was quick to pushback.

“But I wanted to start on a light note, more so for the people who are watching. Because you guys are probably up there saying what in the world does this bill do? Does it kill children? No!” Flores said.

For the record, large scale surveys show minors generally get alcohol from friends and family, not from stores.

Bradenton Republican Senator Bill Galvano sponsored the original bill in 2014. Back then, it was just a sentence long, and it wasn’t the political street fight it is now. But today, Floridians can order alcohol on their smartphones. Galvano says a wall isn’t the biggest threat.

“Ten years from now this debate is probably moot. I don’t know how long retailers in the traditional sense are going to survive. We all see it in our districts,” Galvano said.

Back at the liquor store, Ryan Patel says the delivery apps are on his mind. But he thinks customer service will win out.

“The whole process of shopping here is not just we’re selling you a bottle. But we want to tell you why I’m selling you XYZ and not the other product. We want to even know what you like,” Patel said.

The Senate passed the bill 21 to 17. It now heads to the House.