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Table turned in fight to control the size of beer

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By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2001


It is an obscure but irritating fact that canned or bottled beer in Florida may be sold only in approved sizes -- namely, 8, 12, 16 or 32 ounces. This leads to today's moral of the story.

Perhaps this law has not interfered with your own enjoyment of life so far. Maybe you drink a domestic beer, or one of the array of imports that arrive in the United States in well-behaved sizes.

But Florida's law, adopted in 1965, rankles two kinds of people.

One kind is the beer connoisseur, who yearns for foreign beers packaged in metric sizes or microbrewed beers in odd-size containers. (Apparently there is a beer made by Belgian monks that is particularly tasty.)

The other class of people offended by Florida's law are true political conservatives. Are we really such a sorry lot of humanity that we need our government to tell us what size beer to drink?

Into this latter camp, we must place Tom Lee, who is a nice man from the Tampa suburb of Brandon, but who, of more relevance to our story, also happens to be a Republican member of the Florida Senate. Lee was elected in 1996.

Considering himself a true believer in limited government, Lee was surprised when he first learned about Florida's beer law. He learned, among other things, that it had been enacted to benefit one brewer (Anheuser-Busch) at the expense of a rival (Miller).

"Even if it's a trivial matter in the overall scheme of things," Lee told me at the time, "the more you get into it, the more incensed you get that there's stuff like this in the statutes."

So he filed a bill to repeal the law.

His bill got crushed like a beer can.

The Florida Beer Wholesalers Association mounted a powerful campaign to make sure Lee's bill went nowhere. Since the beer sellers are not without clout, they were successful.

Their official arguments were ridiculous, of course. The beer distributors said the existing law is for "consumer protection." We poor addle-brains might be confused by the new sizes.

There would have to be more trucks. More shelf space. Prices might go up. Besides, the beer sellers argued with a straight face, with no size control, people might drink too much.

The real deciding factor, of course, was that the beer sellers had a bigger stick than Tom Lee.

But that was then. Time passed, and young Sen. Lee rose in the esteem of his colleagues and in his influence in the Senate, until this year he is the chairman of the Rules Committee -- the very body that decides which bills the Senate will vote upon.

I am happy to report that Senate Bill 202, allowing containers of any size up to 32 ounces, now awaits a final vote by the Senate, where it will pass. The House version of the bill has had similar success so far.

What about the beer wholesalers? They say they have seen the handwriting on the wall. "It's just not worth arguing about it with the policymakers any longer," the association's executive director, Mitch Rubin, told me.

Nothing is certain in the Legislature, and Lee's bill still might fail. One reason is ironic -- Lee has enough power now that other lawmakers, especially in the House, may try to trade with him. We'll see how much you want this, they'll imply to him.

Nonetheless, there is a moral to the story of how our government works. He whom you trample upon today might hold your heart in his hands a little down the road. We mere citizens can hope only that this results in better government for us all, not to mention a wider selection of beers.

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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