Gov. Rick Scott's family history of alcohol abuse could decide 'liquor wall' bill

Florida Governor Rick Scott is considering a veto of a bill that would allow Walmart, Target and other big box retail stores to sell liquor. [Andres Leiva | Tampa Bay Times]
Florida Governor Rick Scott is considering a veto of a bill that would allow Walmart, Target and other big box retail stores to sell liquor. [Andres Leiva | Tampa Bay Times]
Published May 23 2017
Updated May 23 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott must decide Wednesday whether to let Walmart and other big-box stores sell liquor, and he says a factor in his decision is the history of alcohol abuse in his family.

Scott has the last word on one of the session's most heavily-lobbied issues — one that divided powerful special interests. The bill on his desk would repeal a decades-old law that prohibits groceries from selling vodka, gin and other spirits, even though they can sell beer and wine.

It's rare for Scott to offer clues as to how he will act on a bill. But he told reporters Tuesday, in response to a question, that this issue has personal significance.

"I've had family members who have dealt with the challenge of alcoholism," Scott said. "It concerns me, and so as I review the bill, I take all those issues into consideration."

Scott has a brother in Texas who has coped with alcohol and drug abuse. The governor's late mother, Esther, said in his first campaign in 2010 that Scott's birth father was an abusive alcoholic who abandoned the family when Scott was an infant.

The bill (SB 106), sponsored by Republican Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, passed the Senate, 21-17, and in a moment of high drama, it squeaked through the House on a vote of 58 to 57.

One House member switched his vote from yes to no right after the electronic roll call vote. Had he done so sooner the bill would have died, but by then, it was too late.

Now Scott must sign or veto the bill.

He also could allow it to become law without his signature, but a governor rarely uses that option on such a controversial and high-profile issue.

Walmart would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the bill, but supporters say other chains that would also sell liquor include Target, Costco, Whole Foods, Sam's Club and Walgreens.

Scott scheduled separate phone calls Tuesday with a key bill supporter, Walmart USA's chief executive Greg Foran, and an opponent, Charles Bailes III, chief executive of the Florida-based ABC Fine Wine & Spirits chain.

Scott's office had received more than 3,000 emails and phone calls on the issue through Tuesday, with opponents leading supporters by nearly a 7-1 margin.

"I do not believe that Florida needs to increase access to alcohol by allowing spirits to be sold on grocery store shelves," Dr. Gary Cox, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Madison, wrote to Scott. "Consumers are not asking for this legislation. Large corporations are."

Taking the other side, Audrey Jackson of Melbourne wrote: "As a consumer, I want to buy spirits and groceries in the same place. We all want a convenient shopping experience."

Supporters of tearing down the so-called "liquor wall" have emphasized Scott's own core philosophy of Florida being a welcoming state for business by reducing burdensome regulations on businesses.

Opponents argue that removing the liquor wall would eliminate jobs by hurting local chain liquor stores and would make it easier for minors to illegally buy alcohol or steal it.

Spearheading the opposition is Publix, a powerful force in state politics for decades. The grocery giant has spent millions building free-standing liquor stores near, but separate, from its food stores.

The bill would phase in the repeal over four years to give the grocery giant time to end leases on some liquor stores.

Supporters counter that local liquor stores such as the ABC chain offer door-to-door delivery of liquor in many Florida cities.

According to the Florida House web site, 125 lobbyists registered to lobby for or against the bill this session, representing Walt Disney World, breweries, restaurants, hotels, chain liquor stores and major big-box retailers.

As Scott ponders whether to sign or veto the bill, he has powerful friends and enemies on opposite sides.

A Scott ally, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, favors keeping the wall in place.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who was Scott's biggest nemesis all session long on funding tourism and jobs programs, supports repeal of the wall and voted for it.

The issue was not a legislative priority for him, but the speaker's brother, Michael, has been a lobbyist for Walmart for a number of years in Tallahassee.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.

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