A Battle Lost, But Progress Made
Yesterday, Florida craft brewers lost another battle against big-beer financed government over-regulation. SB1714 passed the Senate Rules committee by a vote of 9-4, with committee chair John Thrasher (R – St. Augustine) ramming the issue through, rushing those who wanted to speak to the bill, and clearly not listening to a word they said. The bill’s corporate-backed sponsor, Kelli Stargel (R – Lakeland) once again showed her ignorance of the industry and unwillingness to listen to facts. As part of an attempt to “compromise”, an amendment was added to the bill to allow breweries producing two-thousand kegs of beer or less to sell their own packaged beers without going through the distributor. When pressed repeatedly on how she came up with that number, she admitted “I came up with that number, but I am not in the industry.” Translation? “It is totally arbitrary and I do not know what I am talking about… again.” She also made a jaw-dropping statement that this bill would “in no way shut down any breweries.” Clearly, she has not only not been listening to testimony or reading articles (although she claims to have been), but she has not done any serious fact-checking of her own.
The best part for me, though, was watching Cigar City Brewing’s Justin Clark say very simply “We are not asking to change anything in the three tier… it is our opposition that is bringing up seventeen pages of language to change the three tier.” He went on to quickly and eloquently explain how the three tier system has helped Cigar City grow its business, and how the proposed bill would hurt the up and coming breweries in Florida. One after another, representatives from all around the state stood up and opposed this bill in its entirety, and once again, the people’s voices were ignored.
In case you were wondering how the committee members voted, here is the rundown:
Lizbeth Benacquisto (R – Ft. Meyers) – did not vote
Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R – Miami) – Yea
Bill Galvano (R – Bradenton) – Yea
Andy Gardiner (R – Orlando) – Nay
Jack Latvala (R – Clearwater) – Nay
Tom Lee (R – Brandon) – Yea
Gwen Margolis (D – Miami) – Nay
Bill Montford (D – Tallahassee) – Yea
Joe Negron (R – Palm City) – did not vote
Garrett Richter (R – Naples) – Yea
Jeremy Ring (D – Margate) – Yea
David Simmons (R – Altamonte Springs) – Yea
Eleanor Sobel (D – Hollywood) – Yea
Christopher Smith (Vice Chair, D – Ft. Lauderdale) – Nay
John Thrasher (Chair, R – St. Augustine) – Yea
Is your senator on this committee? How did they vote? Let them know what you think. Make sure to let those voting to protect Florida craft beer know you appreciate their efforts. And make sure those that are voting against our local businesses know that you will not forget on election day.
Naturally, those of us who support Florida breweries are not happy with the outcome of this. But it is somewhat heartening to see that there are actually some legislators that seem to be listening at last. The fact that we had 4 “NAY” votes is promising, and it was even mentioned by a few of the favorable voters that the bill still needed work and was going to face stiff opposition in the Senate. A number of people have already been writing and calling their senators in the past 24 hours, and it looks like we are getting through to some. I know that my Senator, Jeff Brandes (R – St. Petersburg) has opposed it. Tampa Representative Dana Young has also been very vocal in her support. In addition, there is a new Facebook “event” that I encourage you to join so we can channel our collective energy to fight this. Click here.
There was also an interesting turn of events yesterday as the Beer Industry of Florida lobbying group came out officially in opposition to the bill, reversing their initial support. Their president Eric Criss released a statement that stated they were essentially against all of the proposals, and reaffirmed their support for 64 ounce growlers. He did leave room, however, for trying to have more definitions and exceptions decided on later, again touting the merits of the three-tier system. (You can read the full statement here.) While this is a good turn, it feels a little like back pedaling after his “waive in support” stance less than two weeks ago. It does cause one to wonder if maybe our message it getting through.
I had the opportunity to sit down last week with John J. Taylor, III, owner of J.J. Taylor Distributing and discuss the goings on in the state and in Tallahassee. One of the first things he said to me was “Florida’s beer laws are ridiculous.” Obviously, he supports a strong three-tier system. I didn’t expect anything less. He has built a hugely successful company based around it, and has done very well. And the thing is, there are very few who would begrudge him that or have a problem with it. One of the big misconceptions (and perpetuated misinformation campaigns from Mitch Rubin and the FBWA) is that craft brewers and craft beer lovers are trying to do away with the three tier system. They aren’t. *We* aren’t. Sure, there are some who will argue that it is an outdated throwback to a different era, but generally speaking I think everyone recognizes that distributors play an important and necessary role in the growth of craft beer. I asked Taylor about an “official” response or position on all the goings on and he told me quite frankly that he didn’t think it would matter. “Trust me, we are working behind the scenes. We are talking to the legislators, talking to Eric [Criss]. But no one buys ‘J.J. Taylor’. They buy the beer.” I appreciated him taking the time to talk to me, especially since I had not contact him, he was the one who reached out to me. That shows me that the message is being heard outside the craft beer geeks, and that people in a position to help affect change are listening. He was gracious, forthcoming, and had actually read the things I had written.
I still don’t think the bill has a chance to actually get passed, but I have seen worse legislation make it through in Florida. But the good news is that our movement is being noticed and picked up by the media. I even saw it mentioned this morning on our local NBC affiliate. It has been in papers around the state, as well as national publications. And I have not seen a single article or news story claiming these efforts by the AB/InBev puppets are good for anyone but the distributors. In fact, former lawmakers have even come out in opposition to these bills.
In addition, one of the few GOOD bills passed today, allowing beer tastings in retail outlets (like they have been doing with wine forever). State Senator Nancy Detert (R-Venice), was able to push SB470 through the Appropriations Committee today (it passed unanimously) in an effort to repeal a state law that prevented beer tastings at retail stores that are now allowed to host wine tastings. It now has to pass the Rules Committee before it goes to the full Senate, but unlike SB1714, this one actually has a comparable bill in the House that has already passed all of its committees. So there is some good happening, albeit slowly.
As I have said before, this is a long game we are playing here. It is a war. There will be battles won, and battles lost, but we have to keep fighting and keep the pressure on. Aside from the financial influence we are fighting against, our biggest obstacle is ignorance and misinformation. All it takes is watching one of these committee meetings to see how oblivious many of the legislators are to craft beer and the industry in Florida. And to be fair, they have a lot of other important things to think about: education, health care, unemployment, crime, environmental issues, and of course their own re-election campaigns and party politics. So if we can give them the information in quick and easy terms, it makes our job easier.
This isn’t just about beer. It is about jobs. It is about the economy. It is about families and family businesses. It is about tourism. It is about a growing industry. It is about Construction. It is about investment in Florida. It is about marketing the state as a place people want to come to work, to play, and to live. There is so much good that the industry does for the state. Why would anyone want to suppress that?
Keep fighting the good fight, friends. And keep your voices heard. The emails, the letters, and the phone calls matter. And so does voting. You think this will all blow over by the next election? Don’t worry… there are plenty of us who will not let you forget.