Reform on Tap Act dies in House committee vote
ANNAPOLIS — The Reform on Tap Act died in committee on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, and three Mid-Shore Republicans are among those who aided its demise.
House Bill 518, which would have loosened several restrictions on the craft beer industry in Maryland, was voted down in the Economic Matters Committee on March 16.
Dels. Johnny Mautz, R-37BTalbot, Chris Adams, R-37BWicomico, and Steve Arentz, R-36-Queen Anne’s, were joined by a bipartisan group of committee members — 11 Democrats and seven Republicans — who voted against HB 518 advancing out of committee.
Four delegates, all Democrats, voted to advance the bill out of committee for a vote on the floor of the Maryland General Assembly.
“It was more business as usual in Annapolis — the corporate beer lobbyists did their job and got their money’s worth,” Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot posted on the Reform on Tap Task Force Facebook page.
HB 518 “would have definitely helped the small breweries, but it would also have hurt some of the other parts of the industry,” Mautz said. “I think we can massage it a little bit ... and help the breweries and not do damage to the rest of the industry.”
The bill has been a longterm project of Franchot’s. He has promoted it on his visits to the Eastern Shore, and four days before the vote, Franchot told a group of Talbot County leaders, “I just want to make sure Johnny Mautz and Chris Adams know this is not a small, limited issue. It’s a big deal.”
The bill was based on the findings of the Reform on Tap Task Force, which assembled and published research on the potential economic boon of expanding the craft beer industry in Maryland.
“House Bill 518 (sought) to grow our craft beer industry and give our remaining craft brewers a more competitive business environment by eliminating several of those arbitrary and illogical limits that unduly hold back and limit how much they (could) grow,” said Len Foxwell of Easton, Franchot’s chief of staff.
Among its provisions, the bill would have removed all limits on beer production, taproom sales and take-home sales; repealed the “buyback” provision that requires brewers to purchase their beer from distributors at a marked-up cost if they exceed the 2,000-barrel limit on taproom sales; allowed local jurisdictions to set guidelines for taproom operating hours; and allowed smaller brewers to self-distribute.
Mautz and Adams said, however, that the omnibus bill package was too big and unwieldy to get an up or down vote in committee.
“The bill was a very large policy change, and the comptroller demanded during the (Feb. 23) hearing that we pass an unamended HB 518,” Adams said. “There’s a lot that I like about the bill, but there were some things that I really did not like about it.”
“I think if (we) were to break it out and look at different sections, we’ve got a much better chance” of passing them, Mautz said.
Some reaction on social media was harsh. On Franchot’s personal Facebook page, Lee Weldon wrote, “My delegate, Johnny Mautz, blew it. Total fail. Sad you put your cronies in Big Beer ahead of the interests of small manufacturing jobs in Cambridge, St. Michaels, and every other corner of Maryland. The bill should have at least made it to the floor for a full vote.”
Mautz takes the criticism of his vote in stride.
“There’s times when you’re the bad guy, and when you’re the good guy, you try to see through (the criticism) and do what’s right,” Mautz said. “I think we’re all focused on ways to help breweries, and even though we couldn’t do it with this bill, part of the job (means) you’re criticized. But I’ve talked to all of our brewers and told them I want to help them.”
Foxwell said beer distributors and big, national breweries pressured legislators to maintain the status quo.
“Why did this bill go down? Unfortunately, it was business as usual in Annapolis (on March 16),” Foxwell said. “The corporate beer lobby has had way too much power over the Maryland General Assembly, and specifically over the House Economic Matters Committee, for way too long, and in this particular case, they got their money’s worth.”
Adrian “Ace” Moritz and his wife Lori have owned Eastern Shore Brewing in St. Michaels since 2008.
Ace Moritz said “craft breweries in Maryland produce less than 10 percent of the beer sold, but they’re not going to tell the big breweries that don’t brew here how much beer they can sell.” All the big breweries brew craft beers, too, he said.
“We all need rules and regulations to play by — you can’t make it the wild west,” Ace Moritz said. “We all understand that, but when you look at every single one of (Maryland’s) surrounding states, and what they’re doing to benefit the business of craft brewing — the amount of jobs those guys have created, the amount of brewmasters who have left Maryland and moved to (other states) — because the opportunities just aren’t here.”
Foxwell said the largest craft brewing company in the state, Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, “recently cancelled a $54 million expansion project that would have added new jobs and tax revenue to the state. They cancelled it because of our laws. So we are leaving millions and millions of dollars on the table just to satisfy some faraway corporate beer monopoly at the expense of our local, community-based brewers.”
Franchot is unfazed by the legislation’s setback.
“This is merely the beginning of the fight to save Maryland’s amazing craft beer industry,” Franchot posted on Facebook. “I’m quite familiar with the power the corporate beer monopoly wields in the halls of Annapolis, and we knew from the start that this would be a long and difficult battle.”
Legislators, however, have decided Franchot may need restrictions on his ability to influence alcoholic beverages policy. Del. Benjamin Kramer, D-19-Montgomery, introduced House Bill 1316 on Feb. 9, and the House passed it 128-10 March 19.
The bill, titled “Task Force to Study State Alcohol Regulation, Enforcement, Safety, and Public Health,” would “examine whether the State agency that now is assigned the tasks of regulating the State alcoholic beverages industry and enforcing State alcoholic beverages laws is the most appropriate agency to ensure the safety and welfare of the residents of Maryland.”
In other words, the task force would determine whether the comptroller’s office should be in charge of alcohol regulations and enforcement.
Nearly a year ago, owners Ace and Lori Moritz, right, welcomed Comptroller Peter Franchot, center, to Eastern Shore Brewing in St. Michaels. Among the guests was Del. Johnny Mautz, second from left, who voted down this month a bill aimed at helping...