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With Senate help, Big Beer pushes back on craft brewers

Published Apr. 10, 2014

Under a bill that passed the Senate's Community Affairs Committee on Tuesday, craft brewers will finally be able to sell their concoctions in 64 ounce containers that are legal in 47 other states and popular for home consumption.

Unfortunately, in exchange, the bill requires that before the specialty brewers can sell to their customers, they would first have to sell to distributors, who would then sell the beer back at a markup to the brewers, even if the beer never leaves the establishment.

"It comes down to, we want a simple bottle size, 64 ounces, that's it, it's very simple," said Josh Aubuchon, a Holland & Knight lobbyist who represents the Florida Brewers Guild, a consortium that counts 90 local breweries in Florida, including 28 in the Tampa Bay region. "And instead you have these other forces wanting to pull this red tape and this bureaucratic nonsense on breweries that are growing at a very healthy rate...It's ludicrous."

By an 8-1 vote, SB 1714 passed with help from its sponsor, Sen. Kelli Stargell, R-Lakeland. Yes, craft breweries would have to sell the beers they produce to a distributor, and then buy them back, but Stargell said that's meant to protect the industry's three-tier system: manufacturer, distributor, vendor.

"The reason why we have the distribution system is to make sure that we have some certainty in what beer has been brewed and what beer has gone into the vendor system because each step alonog the way there are various taxes collected," said Stargell, sounding quite unlike the small government, anti-regulation Republican she is. "The three tier system was established so that we had very trackable brew through the process. We know how much beer is brewed, it then goes to the distribution center and basically comes to rest so we know how much beer is there, the level of taxation there, and then there's the beer that goes out to the vendors. In it's purest form, the three tier system says you can't be more than one of those. Either you're a brewer, either you're a distributor, either you're a vendor."

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, was the only no vote and likened Stargell's proposed "distribution" system to paying off crime syndicates. He proposed an amendment that would require distributors to actually buy the beer and move it to their warehouse before delivering it back to the brewer to sell to the customer.

"If (brewers) are going to have to pay this tariff, sort of like protection to Vinny in New York, then they should at least have to move the goods," he said.

But the committee voted against the amendment. Latvala then tried some fancy manuevering to kill the bill. Although he spoke out against it, Latvala initially voted for it. But then he made a motion to reconsider the bill, which he could since he was on the prevailing side of the vote.

Yet rather than delay a vote, holding it for another meeting, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, moved that the bill be considered "instanter", which means "immediately."

When the committee voted a second time on the bill, Latvala voted no. Afterward, he walked over to Thrasher clutching a rules book. As the meeting continued, the two men huddled and whispered.

Finally, Latvala walked away, but not before telling Thrasher: "You don't make up the rules."

Latvala was gone by meeting's end. Thrasher was still there.

"He didn't want to vote on it," said Thrasher, who happens to be the Senate's Rules chairman. "He thought by reconsidering, it would leave it in the committee, which would mean the bill is dead effectively because we're not meeting."

If anything, the series of events underscores the might of Big Beer. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has already told the Associated Press that he supports the bill as a favor to Anheuser-Busch InBev distributor Lewis Bear, a major GOP donor.

And distributors are already contributing heavily to Stargell's campaign finances. According to the Florida Division of Elections records of her 2016 Senate race, Stargell collected at least $6,000 from beer distributors since late last year, or about 12 percent of her total.

Last month, Aubuchon lobbied to water down a similar measure in the House. But the Senate version now only has one committee stop left, Rules and Calendar, before it's up for a full Senate vote.