Georgia's small brewers get hosed again

Georgia’s mandated middleman monopolies are at it again.

Perhaps no more market-oriented piece of legislation than Senate Bill 63 , a.k.a. the "Beer Jobs Bill," cleared the General Assembly this year. But that says more about the dearth of such bills in this, the alleged "best state in the nation to do business," than the brilliance of this particular one.

SB 63 was held up by lawmakers beholden to the alcohol-wholesalers lobby at every turn before finally gaining approval as a watered-down, near-beer version of itself on the final day of the session. It wasn’t much: Breweries won the chance to give away limited amounts of their beer as “free souvenirs” included in the price of “educational and promotional brewery tours,” a needlessly complicated compromise only Rube Goldberg could love. Given the way even limited “sales” of beer can boost a small brewery’s bottom line and help it grow, though, at least it was something.

The operative word: was.

Out of the blue, the state Revenue Department recently issued a rule to clarify this muddle. Its chosen form of clarity? Tearing a hole clear through the law.

The final text of SB 63 allows breweries to “charge varying fees for the brewery tours.” It says nothing about how those fees are to be determined. The Revenue Department now says breweries “may not vary tour prices in such a way that the tour prices are clearly and directly tied to the market value of the alcohol furnished.”

Although one can contort the vague words of SB 63 just enough to get to the place Revenue’s rule-writers arrived, this policy runs plainly counter to the spirit of the law evident throughout this year’s debate.

It does, however, fit neatly with the wholesalers lobby’s desire to kill such legislation entirely. Only the willfully naive could believe they didn’t lift a finger to ensure the new rule was written just so.

Likewise, only a politician with a check in his pocket from Georgia Crown, Eagle Rock, General Wholesale, et al. could believe it's better to maintain a system that grants the distributors regional monopolies for handling a given brewer's products — a license to print money that falls just shy of the Federal Reserve's — than to loosen regulations and encourage the growth of Georgia's beer makers.

So it’s time to stop asking such small questions as “how much of his own beer should a brewer be able to sell on his own property?” and move on to some bigger questions, like these:

Why does Georgia still grant regional monopolies for moving a given brand of beer or liquor from a manufacturer’s warehouse to a retailer’s stock room?

Why would Georgia want to discourage brewers from opening or expanding in Georgia, just to protect businesses whose logistical and promotional functions would be performed even without the three-tier system?

Why would any Georgia lawmaker vote for meaningless resolutions condemning Obamacare’s mandates, but stand in the way of repealing or reforming the rigid, anti-competitive mandate that producers and retailers work through wholesalers?

Finally, what should we call such lawmakers, since “free-market Republicans” obviously doesn’t apply?