1. Florida Politics

Romano: Political nonsense is on tap in Tallahassee

Today's topic is beer.

(Not really.)

Well, maybe how the state regulates craft breweries.

(Getting closer.)

Okay, it's about how legislators are willing to contradict themselves, ignore their constituents and push the agendas of their campaign donors.

(Ding, ding, ding!)

A bill approved by a Senate committee on Tuesday will essentially force small breweries to sell their bottled or canned beer to a distributor before buying it back from the same distributor and finally selling it to you from their own brewery.

Get it?

The distributor won't make or market the beer. The distributor won't pick up, deliver or even see the beer. Heck, the beer won't even leave the refrigerator at the brewery.

And, still, the distributor will make a profit.

Ain't Florida grand?

The sneaky part of the plan is that it has a whiff of legitimacy along with the usual stench of political favors.

By law, the beer business is required to have three separate branches. There are manufacturers, distributors and vendors, and none are supposed to do the job of the others.

Yet exceptions have been made for niche businesses, such as craft brewers or vineyards. The laws have been relaxed enough in states such as Washington, Oregon and California that breweries and vineyards have become a part of the tourism industry.

When the New York Times listed St. Petersburg among 52 places to visit in 2014, it specifically mentioned the city's growing craft beer scene.

Yet state lawmakers are using the federal government's three-tier regulation to justify this nonsensical addition of a middleman. They say that by acting as both manufacturers and vendors, the brewers have cut out the distributors.

Naturally, that does not sit well with the distributors. And the distributors just happen to have a lot of friends in the Legislature. Friends with price tags on their lapels.

If you think I'm kidding, consider what Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, told the Associated Press last month when legislators were debating whether to approve 64-ounce to-go containers known as growlers:

"I'm with the beer distributors in my district,'' Gaetz said. "That's a very important issue because one of my very best friends is an Anheuser-Busch distributor, and he never talks to me about his business. It's always about what are we going to do for disabled children, what are we going to do for the arts, what are we going to do for economic development. But this time he's talking about growlers.''

That friend of Gaetz's has donated more than $260,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $31,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's campaign committee. And, as the Times' Michael Van Sickler points out, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has also gotten an infusion of campaign money from beer distributors in recent months.

"What they're saying is they're going to pass this law because some big, out-of-state corporations want them to,'' said Mike Bryant, owner of the Dunedin Brewery. "They're not worried that local businesses will lose money and could take people off the payroll.''

Your leaders in Tallahassee talk loudly about helping small businesses by removing unnecessary regulations. Yet if this bill is eventually passed and signed by the governor, they will have added costly regulations that serve no purpose other than enriching their benefactors and campaigns.

Turns out, their devotion to small business leaders begins and ends with themselves.