Bryan Avila.
Bryan Avila. (Photo: Steve Cannon/AP)

A controversial proposal that would allow liquor to be sold in grocery stores was nearly capped in its first House committee as lawmakers expressed concerns about who could handle the bottles.

The House Career and Competition Subcommittee voted 8-7 Wednesday to approve the proposal (HB 81), but Rep. Bryan Avila, the bill’s sponsor, said he would try to change the plan before its next committee vetting.

“There is plenty of time to make sure we get the right fit in place,” Avila, R-Hialeah, told reporters after the meeting.

The contentious and heavily lobbied proposal, sought by Wal-Mart and Target, and opposed by Lakeland-based Publix and Orlando-based ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, seeks to end a Depression-era law requiring liquor stores and bars to be separated from groceries and other retail goods, an issue commonly referred to as the “liquor wall.”

A wider ranging measure (SB 106) that also seeks to end the separation is ready for a full Senate vote.

Proponents contend abolishing the law is necessary to provide more convenience to shoppers, reduce regulations and save businesses money.

Opponents argue, among other things, that the change will drive independent liquor stores of business and result in minors illegally getting access to liquor.

Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, voted for the bill but said he’d support changes that would limit the ability of convenience stores to obtain liquor licenses and restrict access to small liquor bottles.

Trumbull also said the bill’s July 1, 2017, implementation date should be delayed “to give people the ability to react to what is coming down the pike.”

Rep. Julio Gonzalez, a Venice Republican who voted against the plan, said he hasn’t heard from a single individual complaining about an inability to get liquor in Florida. And he said the measure should be closer to a compromise struck last year, but which failed to pass, that would have maintained a current prohibition banning anyone under the age of 21 from handling or selling alcohol.

“I think [this] bill is even worse,” Gonzalez said. “Now you’re telling me that a 16-year-old can sell alcohol, under supervision.”

Also voting against the bill, Rep. Randy Fine said that while he’s “OK with sin,” those pushing for the proposal are simply seeking to increase liquor sales.

“I predict that you will see a 50- or 100- or 200-percent increase” in liquor sales, said Fine, R-Palm Bay. “Why? Because today, people can’t make an impulse purchase of hard liquor. You actually have to choose to go to the liquor store.”

Target lobbyist Jason Unger said the Minnesota-based company wants to provide shoppers with more convenience. And Monesia Brown, who represents Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, said the company is trying to be innovative.

“When online sales in 2016 exceeded in-store purchases, and we expect that trend to continue, it is critical that we pursue opportunities to meet customers where they are,” Brown said.

Publix lobbyist Lindsey Napier said there is no demand for the change that would alter the business model of the company that has spent millions to operate its separate grocery and liquor stores.

“This bill seeks to change that level playing field into a system that suits the business models of large big-box stores and gives them an advantage over other businesses,” Napier said. “To try to incorporate liquor items into our stores, to compete, we would have to lose a lot of other inventory that big-box stores do not.”