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Florida Governor Finds 'Whiskey and Wheaties' Worthy of a Veto

Patrons cross the street to Wally's Mills Avenue Liquors bar in the Mills 50 district of Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 14, 2016. (Phelan M. Ebenhack via AP)

Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) waited until nearly the last minute of the deadline day, but finally vetoed Wednesday legislation that would have allowed big-box retailers, grocery stores and other retail outlets to sell liquor.

Since Prohibition ended, Florida has only allowed small, independent liquor stores to sell distilled spirits.

Floridians for Fair Business Practice, the lobby coalition formed by companies like Walmart and Target, pumped campaign money into a drive to persuade the legislature to approve SB 106 and then get Gov. Scott to sign the so-called “Whiskey and Wheaties” bill.

“The bill provides an opportunity to enhance Florida’s economy and empower customer choice, among other positives, and is about instilling free market principles in an industry that has been dominated by governmental protectionism since Prohibition,” said a Floridians for Fair Business Practice press release.

Tim Nungesser, Florida’s legislative director for the National Federal of Independent Business, said SB 106 was “nothing more than an attempt to use the statute to corner the market on liquor.”

However, the fight over SB 106 wasn’t just a David-and-Goliath-style battle between the big boxes and the mom-and-pops of Florida’s retail world.

The Florida Family Policy Council warned the legislation would allow booze to be sold in stores that employed teenagers who would then “have access to hard liquor in stock rooms.” The FFPC also claimed Walmart and Target would not be able to monitor liquor products as efficiently as the owners of small, package liquor stores.

The FFPC also stated that hard liquor should be put into the same category of “harmful products” like pornography and cigarettes that are not sold in “family friendly” stores.

Gov Scott didn’t just sit around twiddling his thumbs, waiting for the last moment possible to sign, veto or let the legislation become law without objection. He met with representatives from Walmart.

But he also heard plenty from small liquor-store owners like Kiran Patel, who testified at a legislative hearing on SB 106 that the bill’s passage would run him out of business.

Patel said there was no way independent stores could compete with Walmart and Target rolling out “pallets and pallets” of liquor.

Another liquor-store owner, Amit Dashondi, told Florida Politics his customers were hoping for a gubernatorial veto.

“They love their independent liquor stores,” Dashondi said. “We know our customers by name. That’s not going to happen in big, corporate stores. They know how to take your money, and that’s it.”

Gov. Scott pointed out in his veto letter that being a former small business owner, he related to the concerns expressed by the NFIB and small liquor proprietors.

Even though he had “repealed almost 5,000 regulations to reduce unnecessary burdens on Floridians,” Scott found himself coming down on the side of Mom and Pop.

“I have heard concerns as to how this bill could affect many small businesses across Florida,” Scott wrote. “Many locally owned businesses have told me this bill will impact their families and their ability to create jobs.”

Gov. Scott said previously that his family’s history of drinking problems would influence his final decision.

“I’ve had family members who have had the challenge of alcoholism,” Scott told reporters. “It concerns me. As I review the bill, I take all those things into consideration.”

Another factor that could have weighed heavily in his decision-making process was his constituents’ reaction. The Associated Press reported Gov. Scott’s office received 1,174 phone calls, emails and letters supporting the bill compared to 7,516 in opposition of SB 106.

“The veto is better for business but even better for the community,” George Knightly, who owns five liquor stores in Orlando, told the AP. “As a parent and grandparent, I’m tired of people saying a drink is a drink. When a kid is stealing a bottle of liquor, he is not making a drink the same way he would get it in a bar. It’s not apples to apples.”

The big-box retailers of Floridians for Fair Business Practice may have lost this battle, but they don’t consider the war to be over.

“We have made tremendous progress in the last four years and there is a clear momentum in Florida for this common-sense approach to liquor sales,” a Floridians for Fair Business Practice statement declared. “While Governor Scott ultimately chose to veto Senate Bill 106, we look forward to working with state leaders in the future to finally put an end to this outdated, Prohibition-era law.”