(Joe Brown, The Tampa Tribune, 2/15/15) — Last week, like millions of Americans, I decided to buy a Powerball ticket. While I was shopping at my local Publix, there was one customer ahead of me at the lottery terminal when the machine went dead — probably a result of overheated demand.
“If you want, you can use the machine next door in our liquor store,” the clerk informed us, which once again reminded me of one of the more absurd, outdated laws in Florida.
Two years ago, my neighborhood Publix underwent extensive renovation, even closing its pharmacy for more than a month. When it was completed it had a new deli, a coffee bar and a liquor store next door.
I joked with one of the managers that I had to relearn where many items were located in the remodeled store. Then I asked him why they didn’t put the liquor in the main store along with the expanded wine selection.
“Because it’s against the law,” he replied.
Before that, I never had given much thought to why, for instance, the Sam’s Club I frequent had a separate liquor store next door. I learned that the law requiring this division between, say, vodka and vegetables goes back to 1935, when each state was allowed to enact statutes to deal with the repeal of Prohibition.
This liquor-separation law is one of the more visible examples of how government regulations can burden businesses. If stores like Publix want to sell liquor, they have to build a separate shop next door.
It’s only a wall, but it surely adds to construction costs. They also have to pay another clerk or two to operate it when employees in the main store could perform the stocking and checkout duties.
Last year, some state lawmakers proposed legislation that would allow consumers to buy distilled spirits in the same store where they now can buy beer and wine, something already allowed in 34 other states. I figured it would be a no-brainer in a Republican-controlled Legislature with many members who complain about regulatory burdens on the state’s businesses. In the end, however, intense lobbying by liquor store chains and convenience store interests won out, and the law remained in place. Smaller-government rhetoric lost out to big-lobbyist reality.
A new proposal sponsored by three state representatives has emerged for this year’s legislative session that would allow Floridians to buy a half-gallon of milk and a half-pint of bourbon in the same store.
A few county sheriffs, however, want the law to remain, with the excuse that it keeps underage drinkers from having access to the hard stuff. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is not one of them.
“It’s a dollars issue. It’s not a public safety issue,” said Gualtieri. “Is it any easier for them now to steal a bottle of wine or beer?”
No, because the same safeguards that grocery chains and big-box stores use to keep wine and beer out of the hands of teens likely would apply to the hard stuff.
And according to a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control, most underage drinkers report getting their alcohol from adults, such as a fraternity brother of legal drinking age.
The main issue here is burdening retailers with a costly, outdated law. And with so many other states allowing customers to get tequila and tomatoes at the same place on the same shopping trip, the opposition to changing this statute has little to stand on except a reluctance to change.
When we consider all of the other matters facing the state, the liquor-separation law is a minor (no pun intended) one, but it’s symbolic of how all the talk by some lawmakers about the need for regulatory reform often falls short when confronted by entrenched interests.
A change to this 80-year-old statute would be too late for my local Publix, but it can help other businesses in the future.
That’s why the Legislature should, to paraphrase President Reagan, tear down this wall that keeps shoppers from buying booze in the same store where they get their groceries.