The Tampa Tribune, Joe Brown, December 31, 2015 — The other day I checked out the grand opening of a remodeled Publix in Britton Plaza in South Tampa. It looked nice and new, but the only real change I noticed — as far as I could remember — was the separate liquor store was moved from the northern end to the southern one.

It got me to wonder … if the Florida Legislature this year had rescinded an 80-year-old law requiring liquor stores to be stand-alone facilities, would the remodeled Publix have stocked its booze next to the wine and other alcoholic beverages? Anyway, shoppers who want to buy some bourbon or whiskey for their New Year’s Eve celebration will have to make a separate stop next door, just as they always have.

This year and in 2014, some state lawmakers proposed legislation that would allow consumers to purchase distilled spirits in the same stores where they can buy beer and wine, something already allowed in 34 other states. It’s only a wall, but it surely adds to construction costs. Retailers also have to pay for an additional clerk, or two, to operate the liquor side of the operation when employees in the main store could perform the stocking and checkout duties, thus saving in labor costs.

During the session that ended in May, the liquor store-door proposal was included in a wide-ranging measure that pitted companies like Wal-Mart and Target, which backed the plan, against independent liquor stores and Publix. In the end, however, a watered-down version of the proposal failed to make it to the House floor for a full vote.

So even if the bill had passed, Publix would have chosen to keep vodka separated from veggies with a wall. That’s fine if that’s their policy, but other stores should have the option to put liquor alongside their wine and beer stock. Wal-Mart and Target have argued that repeal of the stand-alone law would increase convenience for shoppers, and they should have the freedom to implement their own business models.

I figured this would have been 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 from liquor store chains and convenience store interests keeps winning out, and the obsolete, 80-year-old law has remained in place. Small-government rhetoric that’s often heard on the campaign trail keeps losing out to big-lobbyist pressure.

A few county sheriffs want the law to remain, with the excuse that it keeps underage drinkers from having access to the hard stuff. But would it be any harder to steal a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer?

I don’t think so, 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 liquor. And according to a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most underage drinkers reported getting their alcohol from adults like a fraternity brother or college roommate 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 in Florida has little to stand on except a reluctance to change and powerful lobbying.

Back in September, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, filed a proposal that, in part, would repeal the statutes that require retailers to separately house liquor sales and bar any opening allowing access to other goods. Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, filed a similar bill in October. We’ll see what happens in 2016.

I realize that when we consider all of the other matters facing the state, the liquor-separation law is low on the priority list. 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.

The remodeled Publix in Britton Plaza looks good and is designed the way the store’s officials want it to be, including the stand-alone liquor store.

But lawmakers should tear down the wall that makes it mandatory.