Lakeland Ledger Editorial
February 17, 2015

The government’s desire to protect us, either from others or from ourselves, has often produced laws that at the time must have made sense, but when studied from a contemporary vantage point can often look goofy.

For example, in 2012 Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that repealed a 19th-century provision requiring bicyclists in Florida to keep both hands on the handlebars while riding.

Two Polk County lawmakers — state Rep. John Wood and Sen. Denise Grimsley, Republicans from Winter Haven and Sebring, respectively — aim to undo one of these legal legacies from long ago. They have filed bills that would repeal the state’s ban of the sale of liquor in retail outlets, such as grocery or drug stores, that now sell beer and wine. Those stores have been forbidden from doing that by the 1935 Beverage Law. To do so, major retailers like Wal-Mart and Publix must open up separate liquor stores that, at best, are adjacent to their existing stores. Wood and Grimsley, who represent southern Polk County, believe their bill does away with an outdated regulation that stifles competition and frustrates consumers.

“For retail stores,” Grimsley told the news website, “there is a clear concern that archaic regulations are a barrier to their consumers’ shopping choices. … In this case, Florida shoppers and shopkeepers should be able to decide what’s on the grocery shelf, not government.”

Not surprisingly, independent liquor store operators see the measure as a major threat. The 160-member Florida Independent Spirits Association formed in December 2013 specifically to fight the bill, which, the group maintains, is being pushed primarily by Wal-Mart. The group successfully lobbied against such a bill last year, and recently has argued this is a public safety issue. The group says minors would be more likely to steal liquor from major retailers than small liquor stores. A trio of Florida sheriffs recently came out against the bill for that reason.

Some, like the Floridians for Fair Business Practices, which wants the law repealed, make a counter argument: that research shows more underage drinkers — more than 60 percent — get alcohol from parents or other adults, rather than pilfering it from stores.

Proponents add that alcohol theft is not prevalent at retailers that offer beer and wine now.

Mindful of the warnings about underage drinking, we still believe the Legislature should tear down the legal wall blocking big retailers from selling liquor. Independent operators may lose some business at the outset, but we can see that they would have the advantage of specialization, easy access and niche marketing that the likes of Wal-Mart, Publix or Walgreens, in their efforts to be all things to all people, will not. It’s unclear why lawmakers felt such a law was necessary 80 years ago, but this prohibition from the Prohibition age is ready for the dustbin.