By Bill Cotterell
Why do normally intelligent legislators write reasonable laws on everything except alcohol?
The easy, obvious answer is money. Liquor, beer and wine lobbyists have spent many years, and millions of dollars, making alcohol taxes and regulatory rules just the way they want them. This means there are always people left out by the rules, so they hire lobbyists and try to get them rewritten so they can get in on the business — preferably by elbowing out somebody else.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune last weekend had a good roundup on the “beverage wars” of the 2013 legislative session, which are fairly typical of what we have seen in past sessions. There are at least four bills seeking to change regulation of the who, where and how-much factors for various types of booze sales. The newspaper’s most important point was that Southern Wine And Spirits and Florida Beer Wholesalers Association spread $311,000 among political parties and members running for the Legislature in the past election cycle.
Beer and spirits companies spend all that money to gain market advantages, often very tiny ones. We may not know why breweries don’t want to serve certain sized beverages, but you can be sure they have some monetary interest in standardizing and limiting their serving sizes. But once legislators and other politicians get into the mix, it’s clear the resulting laws aren’t for us. The laws take their strange shapes because they benefit the industry that pays for them.
Consider “growlers,” for instance. Those are big beer jugs, filled at the tap by craft brewers and can be sold in sizes of 32 ounces or 128 ounces. Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, wants to legalize 64-ounce “growlers,” but she’s run into a lot of opposition from the beer industry. In ways dating back to the repeal of Prohibition, people in the business have rigged the rules, and they’re only slightly less hostile to any newcomers than Al Capone was.
Rather than drive-by shootings, the modern industry protects its territory with sensible-sounding arguments (backed by campaign contributions) about keeping the flow regulated, taxed and as orderly as possible. That is, they want laws to make it financially safe for themselves, not for the public at large.
Many years ago, in many southern towns, they used to say you could buy a drunk, but not a drink. That is, you could buy a bottle but not “liquor by the drink.” Legalizing drink sales was a factor in keeping Florida’s Capitol in Tallahassee, when urban lawmakers wanted it in Orlando 50 years ago. There were still a lot of “drys” in Leon County, but they couldn’t forever out-vote the “wets” when state workers’ jobs were at stake.
That’s normal business. The land developers, tourist attractions, pari-mutuels, power companies all use their money to elect friendly candidates who will keep their taxes low and regulations lax. It seems that only in alcohol regulation is greed accompanied by a certain silliness.
Have you ever tried to get from the main floor of Publix or CostCo into the liquor store? You probably had to go outside and enter through another door. But you can have beer and wine in the big store.
No doubt this dates back to the pre-Prohibition era, to protect the children from every knowing what a saloon is. In the San Francisco Bay area many years ago, it was illegal to hang out a sign saying “Bar.” They could say “Nude Dancers,” but the Victorian formality and genteel manners that San Franciscans are so well-known for would not let them call a bar what it is. (Truthfully, I don’t think anyone ever enforced that law).
My first job as a reporter was in Columbia, S.C., when the state forbade signs on liquor stores. Instead, they painted large red polka dots all over their facades. But then the state Supreme Court ruled that the red dots were a form of advertising, every bit as traumatizing as the written word.
There was a long, impassioned debate about legalizing the red dots — how many, how large, whether they had to be in a straight line or sprinkled like chicken pox all over a storefront, all the same size or varied. Grown-ups actually argued about that.
“Brown bagging” was popular in many southern states back then. Restaurants couldn’t sell you a drink, but could charge you $1.50 for a little glass of ice, and pretend not to know what was in that little brown bag you brought with you. Some states allowed “bottle clubs” where you could go through the pretense of “joining,” then leave your brown bag between visits. Liquor stores, forced to close at sundown, had little cardboard clock faces on their front doors signaling an odd hour like 7:16 p.m.
Except for taxation and public health, why not just deregulate alcohol? How is the public served by having to fill two 32-oz. growlers, instead of a 64-oz. jug? Why should stores have separate doors?
Maybe Charles Dickens understood how cold-sober legislators could get such goofy results. On another topic, in Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble tells a magistrate, “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass — a idiot.”
Bill Cotterell is a retired senior writer for the Tallahassee Democrat who covered the state Capitol for 44 years. He can be contacted here.