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Bill's goal: more than 4 sizes of beer on the wall

A Senate committee approves a bill repealing a 1965 law saying only 8-, 12-, 16- and 32-ounce beers can be sold.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Got a taste for imported beer? The Florida Senate wants to help you find it.

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Thursday members of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee approved a bill that would repeal a 1965 law that has allowed beer wholesalers to limit the size of the containers of beer sold in Florida.

Committee Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, pushed the measure through on a 6-2 vote over the objections of lobbyists for wholesalers, who wanted to keep the old law on the books.

"This law serves no public purpose but to manipulate consumer choice," Lee told committee members. "It is not a proper role for government."

No record remains to explain why the 1965 Legislature approved a law that forces retail stores in Florida to sell beer in four sizes only -- 8, 12, 16 or 32 ounces -- but Lee said legislators obviously were not attuned to the guiding principles of today's Senate: "government shouldn't engage in any activity that properly belongs in the private sector."

The law excludes about 2,000 types of beer from being sold in Florida, including imports that often come in metric sizes and microbrews that often come in 22-ounce bottles. Lee's bill was praised by several witnesses who wanted to drink imported or locally brewed beer that comes in other sizes.

"This has been needed for a long time," said Matt Bryan, lobbyist for the National Association of Beer Importers. "We'd like consumers to have a chance to have a choice."

Savino Sterlacci, a Clearwater resident who has a national radio show on beer, said he constantly gets questions from tourists who want to find their favorite beers in Florida.

"They don't understand our law," Sterlacci said.

Michael Bryant, owner of a Dunedin brewery, said he wants to offer a 22-ounce beer that some of his customers want.

Ed Canty, a St. Petersburg resident who is president of the Florida Brewers Guild, said his members want to see all sizes of beer available.

Sens. Buddy Dyer, D-Orlando, and W.D. Childers, R-Pensacola, cast the only votes against Lee's bill. Those supporting the measure were Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor; Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville; Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg; and Roberto Casas, R-Hialeah.

An identical bill has been filed in the House but has not been heard by a committee.

The committee also approved a bill that reduces a surcharge on alcoholic beverages sold by the drink. The bill also exempts from any tax all drinks sold by non-profit groups.

The per-drink tax was adopted in 1990 in a late-night legislative session when legislators were trying to find a way to balance the budget.

Latvala, sponsor of the bill to reduce the tax, said the original tax was approved without a public hearing "in the middle of the night" and has posed a tremendous bookkeeping burden on restaurant and bar owners who have to collect it.

The original tax was 10 cents on each ounce of liquor, 4 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer. In 1997 the tax was repealed contingent upon its revenues in 1998 exceeding $535-million. The total collected in 1998 was only $464,185 so the repeal did not occur.

This year's bill cuts the surcharge to 3.34 cents a drink. Legislators have pledged to eliminate the tax altogether next year.

An identical bill is pending in the House and is part of a tax cut proposal supported by House leaders.

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