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Sun Sentinel: Gov. Rick Scott, tear down that liquor wall | Editorial

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

By Sun Sentinel Editorial Board

Gov. Rick Scott is weighing whether to sign a bill that would lift Florida’s Prohibition-era ban on selling liquor alongside beer and wine at grocery stores.

 By Wednesday, the governor must decide whether to veto the “Whiskey and Wheaties” bill, sign it into law or let it become law without his signature.

We encourage Gov. Scott to sign Senate Bill 106 and put an end to the outdated “liquor wall” regulation. In making his decision, he should be guided by free market principles, doing what’s best for consumers and ending needless government regulations.

Other than protecting certain businesses, what sense does it make to allow beer and wine sales in a grocery store, but force people to go next door to buy a bottle of spirits?

You can understand the concerns of independent liquor store owners, who fear new competition from big-box stores will put them out of business. We’re not unsympathetic to their plight. It reminds us of the fight taxi drivers waged to try to keep Uber from disrupting their businesses. But consumers wanted change and lawmakers listened.

The other concern comes from chain stores like Publix, which have already built standalone liquor stores at some locations. Their lobbyists say tearing down the “liquor wall” will give minors easier access to alcohol. It’s the same argument we heard some years back when retailers tried to preserve the ban that prevented you from shipping yourself a case of wine. They said a child might answer the door and imbibe.

If this bill becomes law, Florida would become the 28th state to let retailers sell hard liquor alongside beer and wine. Surely Florida retailers can learn from the experience elsewhere.

In California, for example, independent liquor stores have focused on higher-end items and a greater selection than what can be found on grocery shelves. Neither has the Golden State reported an uptick in minors stealing alcohol.

The “Whiskey and Wheaties” bill has been controversial from the start. It passed the Senate, 21-17, and the House by a single vote. Three House members voted “no” after the roll call was recorded, but they were too late to make a difference.

It’s a sad commentary that with so many crucial issues facing Florida, the “liquor wall” became one of the session’s most hotly-contested issues.

Large retail outlets, including Wal-Mart, Target and Costco, are behind the push. Yes, it would benefit them. But it also would benefit consumers.

To ease the pain, the bill calls for a phase-in period. Big-box stores couldn’t add hard liquor before next year. And then, they can only add it to a quarter of their stores. reaching total phase-in by 2021.

The bill also prohibits new package stores from being licensed within 1,000 feet of schools. And it requires mini-liquor bottles to be displayed behind the counter to deter theft. And it requires that for alcohol transactions, adults must supervise checkout clerks younger than 18.

Most gas stations also would be banned from selling spirits, with an exception granted to those with more than 10,000 square feet of retail space.

SB 106 gets it right and gives consumers more choice. It deserves to become law.

Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Andrew Abramson, Elana Simms, Gary Stein and Editor-in-Chief Howard Saltz.

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