Originally created 05/14/05

Leaders ready to spar on liquor



COLUMBIA - The stage is now set for a fight between the House and the Senate over the final version of legislation that ends the requirement that bars and restaurants use minibottles.

In November, voters agreed to end the state's status as the only one in the nation that requires the 1.7-ounce bottles at bars and restaurants. The House and the Senate passed different bills to allow liquor to be poured for drinks from larger bottles.

The House named its three members to a conference committee Wednesday, and the Senate will do the same next week.

Rep. Bill Cotty, a Columbia Republican who wrote the House version of the bill, will represent the House along with Rep. Herb Kirsh, D-Clover, and Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island.

"I want to look at the strengths and weaknesses of that panel and send a good team to compete," Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell said.

The major differences boil down to the House's insistence that bars and restaurants won't be able to buy 1.75-liter liquor bottles and that four major liquor wholesalers should be allowed to sell directly to bars.

House leaders argue that consumers will benefit if the state opens up competition with the 58 liquor stores currently licensed to sell minibottles to bars.

Consumers could see lower prices through a more competitive system, according to the South Carolina Hospitality Association, which supports allowing wholesalers into the distribution mix.

Mr. McConnell is wary of giving wholesalers access to that market because they set the prices for products now purchased by distributors. They'll get an unfair advantage that ultimately hurts consumers and could force distributors to close, said Mr. McConnell, R-Charleston.

For instance, the four major liquor wholesalers could take the big accounts away from distributors while forcing the smaller concerns to pay higher prices. "That won't be good for the consumer," Mr. McConnell said.

The liquor business "is not a free-market system" and the retail stores will not be able to compete with the people they are forced to buy liquor from, he said.