Missouri isn’t the only state fighting over liquor laws

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The war over liquor regulations continues to wage on in the United States, with two states delivering significant blows in recent weeks.

Florida Governor Rick Scott in late May decided against knocking down the “liquor wall,” instead, he vetoed the measure that would have removed a law that requires liquor to be sold in separate stores from grocery stores and other retailers. (Interesting sidenote: Gov. Scott was born in Missouri.)

Currently, 29 other U.S. states have similar laws in place, but they require spirits to be housed in separate grocery aisles, not separate stores.

Opponents of the bill argued it would increase alcohol consumption, underage drinking and alcoholism. But Gov. Scott said that it was the liquor store owners and employees that swayed him to veto the bill.

“I have heard concerns as to how this bill could affect many small businesses across Florida,” Scott wrote in his veto letter. “I was a small business owner, and many locally owned businesses have told me how this bill will impact their families and their ability to create jobs.”

Meanwhile, a federal court on Tuesday dismissed a suit by Total Wine & More, which would have lowered prices and increased competition in Connecticut.

The lawsuit sought to overturn the state’s system under which manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers combine to establish the minimum prices allowed for the alcohol sales.

Total Wine argued that the Connecticut pricing system is unfair to consumers and to retailers trying to reduce prices in order to obtain a bigger share of a competitive market.

Under Connecticut law, liquor retailers cannot sell wine and spirits below cost. Connecticut is the only state with such a prohibition.

But the question here is this: do these rulings and decisions have any implications about what could come next in the Show-Me State?

Aaron Baker is a lobbyist with Axiom Strategies who had worked with opponents of liquor legislation that appeared before the Missouri General Assembly this past session. He says that these kinds of measures seek only to allow for more easy sales by big-box retailers like Sam’s Club, Walmart, and Total Wine.

The groups he represented fought against the legislation, arguing that cheap liquor increases consumption.

“The thing about these big retailers is that they can buy train cars full of liquor at a discount out of state, allowing them to undercut the competition, in ways that a smaller mom and pop stores can’t keep up,” he said. “It’s not a free market, necessarily, because of the regulations that are on liquor. Any time you make liquor cheaper, studies show that it increases consumption. And increased consumption would have a societal cost.”

Baker says that the driver behind the push for changed liquor laws in Missouri is Total Wine, which owns three stores in Missouri.

Total Wine became the subject of discussion this past legislative session in regard to a bill, HB 433, which was sponsored by Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters.

That legislation sought to allow retailers to use coupons to advertise special discounts, a turn from the current state standards.

HB 433 managed to pass the Missouri House and had a Senate hearing, which is the furthest any of this type of legislation has reached in some time.

In a Q&A with the Missouri Times, Cornejo shared his thoughts on the state’s liquor laws:

Cornejo
Rep. Robert Cornejo

“This is certainly not something I ran a campaign on or thought much about before I got into the legislature. However, as you start to look at the alcohol industry you come to learn that a lot of the rules and regulations that were put into place were done so decades ago after Prohibition ended and the federal government turned the alcohol industry over to the states. So, while some rules and regulations may have made sense back in the 1930s, they are old, outdated, and simply not workable in today’s modern era. Some regulations are certainly necessary, but they must be reasonable. Just as we have updated regulations for Uber/Lyft and attempted for hair-braiding, this is another area where Republicans can take the lead and work on reducing out-dated, burdensome regulations that are, in some instances, unconstitutional.”

While Cornejo is expected to file the legislation again in the next session, supporters of the legislation are also looking at ways to change the law through another route: the judiciary.

Currently, there’s a long-running challenge by the Missouri Broadcasters Association and other plaintiffs to state regulations governing alcohol advertising. Both sides of the issue are now awaiting a federal court hearing on the issue, with opponents of the current laws arguing that it violates commercial free speech. U.S. District Judge Doug Harpool had set a scheduling conference in that lawsuit to take place on July 6 at 11 a.m.

Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email benjamin@themissouritimes.com or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.