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A Beverage Biz Look Ahead at the 2015 Legislative Session

Posted by on in January 2015 Editions
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The next Maryland General Assembly Session is scheduled to convene in January, and it will be one marked by change.  Big change, in fact, as a very large turnover of elected officials is about to happen.  Yes, indeed, Annapolis is getting an influx of new faces, not the least of which is Governor-elect Larry Hogan.  The Republican defeated Anthony Brown back in November, running on a platform in which he promised a new era of hope and bipartisanship in the Old Line State.

Beverage industry interests are hoping also for a new era of cooperation and recognition of their contributions to Maryland.  The Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association (MSLBA) is poised to be especially active in tugging the ears of Hogan and others.  In a recent interview with the Beverage Journal, attorney and MSLBA lobbyist Steve Wise acknowledged, "There is going to be a 'settling in' period.  We have a lot of new legislators.  We have a new governor, and there will definitely be some turnover on the various committees that we deal with.  The first thing we'll be doing is assessing all of that."

MSLBA President David Marberger concurred, "I think the number one issue for our industry in 2015 is to make inroads with all of these newly elected officials.  Building relationships and building them early is the key component of what we do.  With the turnover that we just saw, there are a lot of new people that we need to get to know."

MSLBA Legislative Chairman Jack Milani is personally looking forward to seeing how things will be different with a member of the GOP occupying the state's top office.  Will Hogan's Republican roots favor the beverage business?  "I would think so," he said.  "I would think that there will be even more emphasis on the small business person and what we have to go through.  That said, I think the Legislature is going to drive most of our issues.  That's why it is so important for our members to get out there and do some educating."

On the issues side, Wise, Marberger, and Milani all expressed certainty that there will again be a push by the larger retailers and grocery store chains to allow them to sell beer and wine in the state.  "We've always had that issue to deal with," Wise lamented, with a bit of a sigh.  "But I think it may be even more prevalent over the next four years.  Now, whether that begins in the first year of Governor Hogan's term or not, I don't know.  But we fully expect it.  . . .  Allowing beer and wine sales in grocery stores?  If we can once again defeat that,  I would consider that a successful year."

Recycling should also be up for further discussion in 2015.  "There are always issues that fall under the recycling heading, and we'll deal with them, too" Wise asserted.  "Not a year goes by where we don't see some activity on the recycling front."

Milani, who has co-owned Monaghan's Pub in Woodlawn since 1990, pointed out, "You can do single-stream recycling in businesses now.  For years and years, it was the cardboard dumpsters that you saw.  A lot of folks had them, and a lot of that has evolved from there.  Everyone I know, they're hauling single-stream now.  So, we're trying to educate our members that it is cheaper, you'll definitely save a couple of dollars, and you're doing the right thing."

For his part, Marberger believes that minimum wage will be among the potential hot-button issues the MSLBA and alcohol industry will have to weigh in on.  Marberger, proprietor of Bay Ridge Wine and Spirits in Annapolis, stated, "I think most of us in this industry, off-premise anyway, probably pay our employees a fair wage.  I, of course, can only speak about us here at our location.  But we pay everybody at the new rate as it is."

Milani believes another priority may end up getting lottery agents, among them packaged-goods store operators, better compensated.  The Arundel Mills Live! casino in Hanover with all of its fancy slot machines and other games of chance along with the recently opened Horseshoe casino in Baltimore have had an impact on these MSLBA members.  "Scratch-offs, Keno, and the other instant-gratification games are down and are still trending that  way," Milani stated.  "It wasn't a mystery when the casinos opened that it was going to affect many of our members.  We just need to figure out how to get the lottery agents [better taken care of]."

A lot will depend on which officials will get tapped to chair which committees in Annapolis.  For instance, whoever eventually heads up the Judicial Proceedings Committee in the state Senate will play a vital role in what happens with future legislation that affects the alcohol industry -- legislation like dram shop liability, which Maryland's highest court rejected by a scant 4-3 margin in the summer of 2013.

All three men interviewed for this article agreed that the key is for store, restaurant, and bar owners and their staffers to get more involved in the political process.  Wise stated, "There is really no better time for readers of the Maryland Beverage Journal to reach out and establish contact with their local legislators.  There are a lot of new ones, and they may not be aware of how widespread the industry is and how many businesses that relate to the alcohol industry are run in their districts.  Pick up the phone, and invite them out!"

Milani agreed, "It's about working together to solve issues.  I personally would love to see the chain threat go away.  I'd love to see alcohol distribution handled by Maryland citizens who live in the community and raise their families in the community.  I think they are more invested in how things work.  Preserving small business is so important!"

Marberger described the state's beverage industry as a fabric of small-business owners who are all Maryland corporations.  "We're the ones here in the shops every single day, and our perspective on things is a real-life scenario," he stated.  "So, reach out and shake your elected official's hand and let them know your perspective.  Introduce yourself.  It's truly no different than creating and building a relationship with your customers.  This is an industry of relationships, and politics is the same way.  The more you gain somebody's trust, the easier it will be to have those conversations that really matter.  To get somebody who is listening, you not only have to pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, this is not right,' you have to also call them when it's appropriate to say, 'Good job!'"

He concluded, "As with everything, we just hope our seat at the table is a welcome seat and people understand the value of what we bring.  We really are where the rubber hits the road.  We're not making decisions in a boardroom without absolute knowledge of the inner workings of the systems.  We're the ones out here doing it day in and day out.  And when we say, 'Hey, wait a minute.  That doesn't make 100-percent sense,' it's because we see it, we feel it, and we touch it on a daily basis."

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Teddy is a graduate of UMBC. In additional to his Beverage Journal writing duties, he is an entertainment reviewer.