Maryland Update: Wine Shipping History in 2010 General Assembly

The wine shipping bill in Annapolis took a most unusual and circuitous route in the General Assembly this year, so we thought we would give you a recap as the session is about to come to a close on April 12, 2010.  We have every belief that 2011 will finally be the year this comes to pass.  What follows below is the unofficial version, so please excuse any mistakes made in its telling.

Companion bills were filed in both the House (HB716) and Senate (SB566) soon after session started.  Originally, the bills were both scheduled to be heard on the same day – Friday, March 5th – but Senator Joan Carter Conway, chair of the senate committee hearing the bill, decided to push back the hearing date to St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th.

The House hearing was remarkably spirited, lasting several hours before a very attentive Economic Matters Committee (ECM).  Although we suspect that some hoped the bill to be killed in the House before the Senate hearing, the House resisted.  Before session on Wednesday, March 17th, the Senate bill sponsor, Jamie Raskin, approached Senator Conway about a compromise on shipping to have the Comptroller’s office study best practices from other states in reducing underage access and tax avoidance.  He offered this language as an amendment to the Maryland Winery Modernization Act, which is the main piece of legislation this session being advocated for by Maryland’s wine industry.

The Winery Modernization Act is a compromise worked out between the wineries, liquor wholesalers and Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association (MSLBA).  The bill codifies what a winery can do in the state rather than leaving it up to the individual county liquor boards to impose their own set of inconsistent rules (does it make sense that some wineries can have tables and chairs while others cannot, for example?).  The bill was introduced by ECM Alcohol Sub-Committee Chairwoman, Mary Ann Love, a strong sign that it would pass favorably out of ECM.  Senator Conway appropriated the legislation in her chamber and signed up 41 out of 47 senators as co-sponsors on the legislation, a number we believe not surpassed by any other bill this session.  This legislation was clearly fast tracked for passage in both chambers.

The wholesalers were very clear when this bill was first heard that they would ensure its demise if anything was amended or altered in the original language.  Given the high level of support for the Modernization Act, we certainly gave thought to amending the wine shipping language to it (doesn’t it seem ironic that the Modernization Act does not include purchasing on the Internet, perhaps the most modern sales channel of all?).  We decided against doing so because many see floor amendments as circumventing the committee system and do not want to support a maneuver that could come to haunt them in their own committees.

All of that being said, Senator Raskin’s amendment to the Winery Modernization Act for the Comptroller study was pre-approved by Senator Conway as it would help her answer her questions about wine shipping.  Senator Raskin had drafted the amendment to attach the wine shipping language to the Modernization Act just in case he wanted to pursue that avenue but did not tell Legislative Services that it was moot.  Consequently, he showed up on the floor of the Senate with both amendments and inadvertently handed the Senate pages the wrong amendment.  While he was speaking about the Comptroller study, Senator Conway started reading the amendment and immediately called him out for breaking their deal.  Chaos ensued.

Senator Raskin apologized profusely.  Senator Conway was still anxious about the status of her winery modernization act, so Senator Rich Colburn from her committee asked that the bill be held over until the next session.  Interestingly enough, the amendment for the study commission had already passed unanimously, but presumably Senator Conway just wanted to make sure the appropriate amendment was filed.  That same afternoon, her committee heard testimony about the wine shipping bill (click here to listen to testimony in support of the bill).

Two days later on Friday, Baltimore County senator, Bobby Zirkin, on his own accord decided to introduce the same amendment Senator Raskin previously mistakenly offered on the floor.  This amendment would have attached the wine shipping language to the Winery Modernization Act.  This amendment was immediately special ordered for review until the following Tuesday.  Over the weekend and on Monday, heavy lobbying to kill the amendment occurred from all parties wanting to see the Modernization Act passed.  We decided not to actively support this amendment because we felt that we needed to work within the committee system to get our bill passed.  Nonetheless, we observed with great interest.

The floor debate came Tuesday. Some senators expressed frustration over not being able to vote on what was clearly the issue of most correspondence in their offices.  In the end, Senator Zirkin retracted his amendment, and the Senate decided to adopt the study commission amendment.

Meanwhile, the House of Delegates decided to vote on the issue on March 29th.  With 24 members on ECM, the bill needed 13 votes to secure a favorable recommendation; we only got twelve (here is a link to the voting record).  As a result, the bill died in committee yet again despite having a favorable majority of those voting.  Now the conference committee of the House and Senate must decide whether they can adopt the Comptroller study as part of the compromise legislation, which it seems likely will happen.

Although it would appear a total failure, many in Annapolis have assured us that wine shipping should finally come up in 2011 once and for all.  May that be the case and may 2011 finally be our vintage!

Tastefully yours,

Paul Hoffstein
Interim Executive Director
Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws
4315 Underwood Road
Baltimore, MD 21218
Tel: (443) 254-8510