A heavily lobbied measure that would remove a Depression-era "wall" separating the sale of liquor and groceries was positioned --- after more than two hours of discussion Tuesday --- for a final House vote as soon as Wednesday.
The House agreed to take up a Senate-approved version of the proposal (SB 106), after years of debate that has pitted the supermarket giant Publix and small liquor stores against retailers Walmart and Target.
House sponsor Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, said the proposal, which would repeal a decades-old state law requiring stand-alone liquor stores, doesn't make Walmart and Target winners. He said the decision to vote on the Senate measure, which includes a provision regarding convenience stores that was not in the House version, was done in the "spirit of cooperation."
Walmart and Target lobbyists have argued that repealing the law is needed to meet customers' demands and convenience. Instead of going elsewhere to buy liquor, shoppers could buy it in the same stores where they pick up groceries and other items.
But more than 100 liquor-store owners and employees, many wearing white T-shirts stating "Save Jobs & Small Business Vote No," lined the entryway to the House chamber prior to the session Tuesday. The bill also could affect Publix, which has opened liquor stores in many of the same shopping centers as its supermarkets.
Critics pointed to the potential impact of the change on small businesses and the possibility there would be greater access to liquor by minors, either as store employees or shoppers.
Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, called the proposal "decidedly anti-free market."
"Isn't this bill essentially a conduit to allow the large package stores to run amok, to run the small businesses out of the various market places and restrict their ability to find places to conduct their businesses?" Gonzalez said.
In addition to repealing the separation law, enacted in 1934 as Florida was responding to the end of Prohibition, the measure would prohibit new package stores from being licensed within 1,000 feet of schools; require small bottles, 6.8 ounces or less, to be displayed only behind the counter; and require that checkout clerks under the age of 18 to be supervised by someone 18 or older when alcohol is being purchased.
The Senate voted 21-17 last month to approve the proposal sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores. It also would require retail businesses that sell gas to be 10,000 square feet or larger to receive liquor licenses.
The size restriction had been a sticking point when the proposal first reached the House floor last month. But Avila noted that a number of senators expressed concern about the potential for liquor stores appearing on neighborhood street-corners.
"For all intents and purposes I have not seen a gas station, other than the Busy Bee, that is more than 10,000-square-feet," Avila said.
Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, and Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana, failed to convince House members to approve a series of amendments that Avila said were intended to "kill" the bill.
One of Plakon's proposals, for example, would have prohibited package stores holding liquor licenses from employing anyone under age 21.
"For the first time, tens of thousands of young people, without this amendment, will be in close proximity to hard liquor," Plakon said of his amendment, which failed in a 70-48 vote.
By taking up the Senate version, and not making any changes, approval by the House would send the bill to Gov. Rick Scott rather than having the bill bounce back to the Senate.