TALLAHASSEE — Floridians are one step closer to being able to buy whiskey, rum or vodka in a grocery store.
Legislators passed the "whiskey to Wheaties" bill in the Florida Senate Thursday which will allow grocery stores like Publix or Walmart to sell hard liquor on the shelves next to beer and wine instead of in a separate liquor store with its own entrance.
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who sponsored the bill in the Senate (SB106), said that the current Prohibition-era law is "archaic" and called for passing legislation that is more relevant and convenient for consumers in Florida.
Senators voted 21-17 in favor of the bill.
"This was put in well over 80 years ago when Al Capone was still roaming through the streets," Flores said during a special order discussion when the Senate was in session Tuesday. "The question is, 'Has this outlived its purpose?' The answer we came up with in committee is: 'Yes.'"
The Senate bill, if put into law, would allow a retailer to add liquor to only a quarter of the stores it has in Florida in phases over five years. It would also prohibit stores from selling liquor within 1,000 feet of schools and require that miniature liquor bottles of 6.8 ounces or less, be stored and sold from behind a counter.
Gas stations that have 10,000 square feet or more of retail space and are already selling beer and wine could obtain a hard liquor license under the Senate bill. Wholesale retailers like Sam's Club and Costco are also included.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, made a last-ditch effort to stop the bill from moving forward, sparking a heated debate on the floor of the Senate. Lawmakers debated issues like whether this bill would make it easier for children to drink underage or what would be the age of clerks who could check out customers buying distilled spirits.
"I don't understand the rush or the importance of doing this," Latvala said. "People are calling us about health care and criminal justice issues and spillage at Lake Okeechobee. In the 15 years of being here, I've never had calls from people who tell me we need to make the purchase of liquor more convenient for me."
Latvala said big box stores who are pushing for the legislation, like Walmart and Target, would have the upper hand over independently owned businesses.
"When you're the major tenant in a shopping center, you have the right to control your competition," Latvala said. "If one of these big box stores comes into a shopping center and (they) don't want to have the mom and pop liquor store that's been there for 20 years anymore at the end of their lease, they won't be there."
The bill, which has surfaced many times over the last six years without success, has pitted retailers like Publix against other big box stores like Walmart and Target. Publix has lobbied against the legislation, saying the company has already invested heavily in its own separate liquor store operation which can be found adjacent to some of its grocery stores. ABC Fine Wine & Spirits and other independently owned liquor stores say if the bill becomes law, it would hurt local businesses.
But Walmart and Target lobbyists say it's good for consumers.
"This is something our customers want," said Jason Unger, a lobbyist for Target, which has 122 stores in Florida. "Customers have told us that they'd rather be able to buy liquor on our shelves instead of having to make a second stop."
Unger said that claims that this law would hurt small businesses are unfounded.
"In California, the largest state in the country, we (Target) have less than two percent of all liquor licenses out there," Unger said. "Competition is good for everyone. This is a good pro-business piece of legislation."
A similar bill in the Florida House (HB 81) narrowly advanced in a House commerce committee Wednesday. It's unclear if the bill will go to a floor vote in the House.
Both the House and Senate bills would require clerks to be 18 or older to checkout patrons purchasing alcohol.
"This bill was never meant to be so dramatic," Flores said in closing.