Several Missouri senators spent Tuesday afternoon blocking liquor legislation that has been the topic of intense lobbying this session and several recent lawsuits.
The move to block the legislation is the latest in a complicated battle over relationships between liquor suppliers and the distributors who get wine and spirits to Missouri retailers for consumers to buy. At issue is whether the government has any role or responsibility in those deals.
The proposed legislation would make it more difficult for alcohol suppliers to sever their relationships with distributors by deeming those relationships as "franchises,” which have stricter standards that must be met to avoid financial repercussions when contracts are broken.
Last week, the House moved to advance the liquor legislation, by tying the proposal to a homebrewed beer bill that has drawn relatively little attention this session. The House vote essentially revived the liquor debate that had stalled in committees in the House and Senate.
During a nearly three-hour filibuster on the liquor bill, several senators opposing the legislation indicated that they were prepared to stall it as long as necessary to kill the debate or get the bill sent to conference, where House and Senate negotiators would work to address issues.
Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, said he believes that there are issues that need to be resolved in state law, but he doesn’t support the current version of the bill – particularly because it would be retroactive.
“You don’t jam anything through the Senate,” he said. “That’s not how we work.”
Senate Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, wouldn’t say whether the legislation will get a second shot on the floor before the session ends Friday.
“Nothing’s ever dead on the floor of the Senate,” he said.
Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Republican from Glendale handling the bill in the Senate, said the intent is to clarify the law and return Missouri to the system that it operated under for decades.
After a 2011 federal court ruling overturned a state law that had been governing the relationship between suppliers and distributors since 1975, some of the country’s largest liquor suppliers began filing lawsuits to end deals with local distributors.
“Our state has developed a scheme and now we have a (court) decision that throws all of that out the window,” Schmitt said. “I think we ought to think long and hard about whether or not, through inaction, we want to change very clear pronouncements that this body has had for years.”
The issue has drawn intense interest in the state Capitol, and the Senate galleries were packed with observers during the floor debate and filibuster.
Lawmakers say they have been bombarded with calls and emails from supporters and opponents of the proposed liquor law. Nearly three dozen lobbyists have been working the issue in the halls of the state Capitol.
Opponents of the proposed legislation, modeled from the pre-2011 system, say it inserts government into activities that should be left to the free market.
“I don’t see a bunch of jobs going away; I see the market changing,” said Sen. Ed Emergy, R-Lamar, “I see those that do the best not only surviving, but thriving.”
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said that the state would face lawsuits if it goes forward with the current version of the bill, which attempts to make the law retroactive.
“If we’re going to change this law and go backwards we’re going to change contracts that exist,” he said. “There’s going to be a lawsuit – the state of Missouri is going to get sued.”
But Proponents say inaction on the bill will lead to consolidation in the industry and hurt Missouri businesses.
In a statement Tuesday evening, Sue McCollum, CEO of St. Louis-based Major Brands, the state’s largest distributor, urged lawmakers to pass the legislation before the session ends Friday.
“This legislation is important to hundreds of retailers, consumers and distributors across the state,” she said. “Thousands of Missouri jobs depend on this bill and those workers deserve an up or down vote before the legislature adjourns for the year."
Hope for homebrew?
The beer bill caught up in the fight over liquor distribution, would allow homebrewers to pour their beers at festivals, competitions and charity events but not sell them – a response to an unexpected ban on homebrewed beer at last year’s St. Louis Brewers Heritage Festival.
Schmitt said he’s hopeful that another bill carrying the homebrew language will pass – though it hasn’t yet moved to the House floor.
Only one senator voted against the beer bill, sans liquor franchise language, when it passed the chamber last month. The House had little discussion on the underlying homebrew bill, but spent nearly two hours debating the liquor franchise part last week.