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Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee talk a good game about promoting the free market, removing regulations and encouraging entrepreneurs. But don't ask them to remove Florida's nonsensical ban that prohibits brew pubs from filling 64-ounce "growlers," the containers that beer lovers can use in 47 other states to buy beer for home consumption. Rather than stand with small business, legislative leaders are protecting political friends. A Senate committee has a chance to change that perception this afternoon.

No one is quite sure how Florida came to exclude 64-ounce growlers from the sizes acceptable to be filled in craft breweries. Gallon and 32-ounce growlers can be used, just not the more popular 2-quart size found in other states. So for years, the brewers have sought a simple addition to the law and beer distributors for major manufacturers like Anheuser-Busch have successfully blocked it.

But now distributors, whose power stems from the three-tier distribution system set up after Prohibition, are playing for keeps. While straightforward bills to allow the growlers stall, another bill (SB 1714) pushed by beer distributors with the blessing of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is set for a hearing today in the Senate Community Affairs Committee. It would allow craft breweries to fill 64-ounce growlers from the draft spigot, but only after altering state law so that any nondraft alcoholic product the brewer sells (such as prepackaged bottles or cans) would have to first be sold to a distributor - even if it never leaves the brewery and is sold directly to consumers there. That sounds like a protection racket from an old gangster movie.

Only politically connected interests can demand such foolishness. Gaetz acknowledged to the Associated Press last month that he was backing the plan as a favor to Anheuser-Busch InBev distributor Lewis Bear, a longtime Republican donor. But that should not be the final word. Senators on the Community Affairs Committee should stand for less regulation and amend the bill today to allow 64-ounce growlers and prevent the distributors from skimming off profits as a middleman.