Florida Beverage Industry Bills Update – April 13, 2014

The stage is set for the home stretch of the Florida Legislature’s 2014 session. This upcoming week, legislators return home for an Easter-week break. When they return on April 21, it will be a two-week sprint to the finish on May 2, 2014. Will any of the beverage bills make it to the end? It’s looking doubtful.

This week, we throw in the towel for bills that appear to have no chance, and we try to project the future of the few bills that still have a fighting chance. Please let us know what you think in our Replies Section. Subscribe to BrewersLaw.com to stay informed.

Debate or Theater, It was Exciting

The Senate Community Affairs Committee staged an exciting hearing on Senate Bill 1714. Already approved by the Regulated Industry Committee, SB 1714 would authorize growlers up to 128 oz in size, but at a heavy cost to Florida breweries: requirement that pre-packaged beer go through a distributor. The star attraction was the debate banter between Senator Kelli Stargel–who chairs the Regulated Industry Committee, which proposed and already approved SB 1714–and Senator Jack Latvala–who proposed a slew of amendments to lessen than blow of SB 1714 on Florida breweries. The hearing play-by-play has already been widely reported (for instance, here) and editorializes (for instance, here). For all the excitement, however, it seems likely that the hearing’s outcome was inevitable the whole time.

Despite Senator Latvala’s protestations, the Community Affairs Committee was probably always going to approve Senate Bill 1714. Besides Senators Stargel and Latvala, the other 8 senators on the committee did not speak during the entirety of the discussion on Senate Bill 1714. No one asked a question or asked for explanation about how the bill would impact the relationship between Florida breweries and distributors. Senator Latvala spoke forcefully in favor of breweries–especially confronting Senator Stargel about the come-to-rest exemption introduced by the bill–but even he seemed to know the score. Stargel mentioned that she and Latvala had spoken the prior day about the bill, and it seems likely that their discussion was not simply about the technical points.

The “um-hmm” moment came when Senator Latvala voluntarily withdrew his own amendment attacking the part of SB 1714 that matters most to Florida breweries: the requirement to sell pre-packaged beer to distributors. Why would Senator Latvala withdraw that amendment, without discussion, if he didn’t already know the outcome? This isn’t to say that Senator Latvala is disingenuous in his support for Florida breweries, several of which are in his Pinellas County district. Rather, Senator Latvala is an experienced legislator who knows better than most how the game must be played.

Bill, We Hardly Knew You

With only two active weeks remaining in the 2014 session, it’s not too soon to pick out the beverage bills that won’t make it (absent an improbable change of fortunes). So, what new laws will not be coming out of the Florida Legislature this year?

No approval for the 64 oz growler. I’m calling it now. Despite the fact that this whole thing began with consensus that the Florida law limiting growler size is plain stupid, that law won’t change. Two options for fixing the growler law have been offered this session: (1) the growlers and beer tasting bills (House Bill 283 and Senate Bill 406), and (2) the comprehensive reform bills (HB 1329, HB 7075, SPB 7120, and SB 1714). Neither option seems likely to succeed.

The growler and beer tasting bills, although much cleaner and less ambitious, aren’t going anywhere. HB 283 and SB 406 have stalled out in committee.

The comprehensive reform bills are a hopeless jumble of incongruity. The House of Representative has shown favor to Florida breweries by moving HB 1329, but it doesn’t seem likely to get a vote on the House floor. The Senate may be moving SB 1714 for a just-in-time vote. If SB 1714 goes to the Senate floor, it seems likely to pass (don’t forget that Senate President Don Gaetz’s has already pledged his vote to major donor and AB/InBev distributor, Lewis Bear). However, there’s no companion bill in the House of Representative. That means it would take a lot of last minute maneuvering to get the House to consider SB 1714, which is drastically at odds with its own HB 1329.

So, lost in the political wrangling is any hope for the 64 oz growler. Maybe next year.

No comprehensive revision of laws governing Florida beer. As noted above, the House of Representatives, with HB 1329, and the Senate, with SB 1714, are about as far as they can be on updating the antiquated, incomprehensible, and incomplete laws that govern the manufacturing and selling of beer in Florida.

No whiskey in the bread aisle. House Bill 877 and Senate Bill 804 flew under the radar (despite a little press), but it doesn’t seem to have mattered. These companion bills would have repealed a Florida law restricting what kind of products can be sold in licensed package stores. The effect of this repeal would have been to allow essentially any retailer–say, Wal-Mart, Target, or Publix–to become licensed to sell spirits. The bills would have also prohibited the use of food stamps for the purchase of alcohol. None of that matters, however, because neither bill got anywhere close to a committee hearing.

No changes for wine and spirit importers. House Bill 1201 and Senate Bill 1552 would have prohibited alterations to imported bottle labels (among other things). Neither bill got a hearing in committee.

Just maybe, retailers will be able to host beer tastings. The only bills that seem positioned to maybe get a vote are House Bill 387 and Senate Bill 406. These companion bills would allow retailers to host beer tastings. That’s it. The bills are both waiting for their second reading. A bill must be read from the house floor 3 times before a full vote can be taken.

 Welcome to the Big Leagues

“For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.” Frank Underwood

Of course Frank Underwood is a conniving, fictional character on Netflix’s House of Cards, but he makes a point. If Florida breweries are big enough to play the game, they better be ready to play to win.

Florida breweries thought it would be an easy matter to change Florida’s stupid growler law (32 oz, 128 oz, but not 64 oz–WTF?). “Nothing comes for free,” is the response from the beverage industry–delivered by the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association (AB/InBev distributors) speaking through the legislators they support. “If you want 64 oz growlers, the cost is that pre-packaged beer must go through distributors.” And while the AB/InBev distributors take all the heat (it’s OK, they can handle it), there are other distributors and retailers who are quietly sitting on the sidelines. They know what Florida’s latest wave of breweries is learning: In a regulated industry, like beverage, the regulations make winners and losers. And no one is going to become a loser without a fight.

Next week should be quiet, with legislators getting a break from Tallahassee. But what comes next is a flurry of activity, but it looks likely the beverage bills will be among the also-rans this session. There is still hope for some of these bills to reach the finish line. We’ll keep you posted.

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