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Politics

Backroom Briefing: Liquor Dispute Could Be a Wallbanger

October 22, 2015 - 7:45pm

Need a little proof that lobbying will be heavy during the 2016 session about whether grocery shoppers should be able to load their baskets with vodka and gin while picking up some eggs and cereal?

Publix, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits and the Florida Independent Spirits Association this week joined forces to keep walls --- the actual solid masonry kind --- between grocery aisles and rows of liquor.

Calling itself Florida Businesses Unite, the coalition, which also includes a number of smaller liquor stores throughout the state, wants to keep corked the latest bills (HB 245 and SB 420) that seek to lift an 80-year-old state law requiring liquor stores and bars to be separated from other retail goods.

With companies such as Target and Wal-Mart pushing for the change, the coalition is painting proponents of the bills filed by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, as dreaded "out-of-state retailers."

"Major policy changes like the fight over 'The Wall,' where there is no constituency asking for it and no real need, negatively impact Florida businesses and usually trace back to out-of-state companies seeking to change the law to better fit their business models,” Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for Florida Businesses Unite, said in a release Wednesday.

Bascom wouldn't discuss if the campaign will include TV and radio ads, or displays inside Publix, but noted in an email that "you should expect us to run a full campaign."

Similar heavily lobbied bills during the 2015 session failed to get heard on the House floor, even after being watered-down to allow just interior doors to be built between liquor stores and other retailers.

Jason Unger, a lobbyist for Target, said the Minnesota-based company wants to please its shoppers.

"This is something our customers are asking for," Unger said. "The bottom line of all this is what is better for the consumers: The flexibility and the efficiency to shop where they want to shop; or outdated regulations that just keep up artificial barriers and are anti-competitive?"

Target also sees the addition of liquor aisles to groceries as part of its business model, which includes a push for smaller "express" stores in downtown sites.

SENATORS TAKE NOTE OF NO-SHOWS

After waging legal war for more than three years with voting-rights organizations and a group of voters supported by the Florida Democratic Party, some lawmakers would love to hear from their courtroom nemeses.

The absence of the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida, in particular, from redistricting meetings at the Capitol rankles some Republicans, who have repeatedly lost legal fights over the redrawing of legislative and congressional boundaries to the groups.

So when the Senate Reapportionment Committee met Wednesday to begin the process of wading through how to recast Senate districts, the failure of anyone from the organizations to show up was noted. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he expected the two groups might instead send another letter outlining their concerns --- as they did when lawmakers tried to redraw congressional districts during the summer.

"But it's just words on a letter," Bradley said. " ... What I'm saying is, that's not good enough. You must go further if we're going to have a true, fair and full discussion and hearing on these matters."

The letter on congressional districts foretold a controversy over two South Florida districts. A Leon County judge ultimately sided with the voting-rights groups over lawmakers' proposed version of those lines.

A lawyer by trade, Bradley seemed particularly irked by the inability to question leaders of the organizations; he likened the Senate Reapportionment Committee to a quasi-judicial panel and said he wanted the opportunity to hear from and examine both sides of the issue.

The League of Women Voters refused to show despite a Monday letter from Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, offering "my assurances that you or your representative will be treated fairly and respectfully."

That could hint at some of the underlying mistrust between the Legislature and those who support the voter-approved "Fair Districts" amendments, which ban political gerrymandering and have sparked the court battles that require lawmakers to keep redrawing lines.

When the amendments were making their way to the ballot and legislative leaders opposed them, Ellen Frieden --- one of the leaders of the campaign for the amendment --- was called before a legislative hearing and grilled by lawmakers. The way Frieden was treated outraged many supporters of the movement.

In a response to Galvano, David King --- a lawyer for the voting-rights organizations --- said his clients were still reviewing the maps lawmakers put forward.

"Until we have a better idea of the Legislature's ultimate approach and have completed our assessment, it would be premature to comment on whether the Legislature has met its constitutional obligations," King wrote.

But he hinted that new Senate districts in "base maps" drafted by legislative aides might not satisfy the voting-rights groups. Those maps were drawn as the result of a settlement between the plaintiffs and the Legislature, not under a court order that specifically spells out which districts must be changed.

"As you know, in May 2015, our clients provided detailed, written objections to 28 of the unconstitutional districts in (the original Senate map)," King said. "We were disappointed to learn that in drafting the six base maps, legislative staff did not even consider those objections."

Just don't expect to hear any of those objections voiced in a legislative committee hearing any time soon.

THE LEGACY THING

He's got three more years in office, but Gov. Rick Scott gave a glimpse Thursday of how he'd like to be remembered from his time in the governor's mansion.

While addressing economic incentives before the Enterprise Florida board in Orlando, Scott offered: "When I finish this job, they're going to say, people are going to say, 'I want to live in Florida because, one, I can get a job. I know I can get a job. Number 2, I know my child has a better chance of living the dream of America, which is tied to education, than any place in this country. And third, I know that whether I live in any part of this state I'm going to live in a safe neighborhood.' "

TWEET OF THE WEEK: "Charlie Crist is back. And so is his fan." --- @PBPostNOW, a Twitter account of the Palm Beach Post referring to the announcement that former Gov. Charlie Crist will run for Congress.

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