A fierce lobbying war between two of the most powerful special interests in Maryland ended today when a House committee killed a bill that would have allowed food and drug chain stores to sell wine and beer.
The bill -- strenuously opposed by the politically influential liquor store lobby -- was defeated with the help of three committee members who own package stores that could have faced new competition if the measure had passed.
The list of opponents on the House Economic Matters Committee also included two former tavern owners and several delegates who rely on the well-organized liquor merchants to contribute money to their campaigns.
"This wasn't a test of philosophy," said the sponsor, Del. Elizabeth Smith, moments after her bill was killed by a margin of 18 to 3. "This was a simple matter -- the liquor lobby spoke."
Smith, a free enterprise partisan from Anne Arundel County, did not tackle the powerful liquor lobby singlehandedly. She introduced the bill on behalf of the food and drug chains, led by such financial powers as Giant Foods and 7-Eleven Stores.
The chain stores began their effort months before the session opened in January. They prepared literature to promote their cause and hired as their lobbyist Maurice Wyatt, who learned the art of persuasion as the patronage chief for former governors Marvin Mandel and Blair Lee III.
Once the session began and Wyatt was seen actively courting members of the Economic Matters Committees at parties, Annapolis night spots, and State House offices, the liquor store lobby geared up for the fight with at least as much intensity.
They hired their own lobbyist, sent letters to 7,000 liquor store owners seeking financial help for the fight, packed the committee hearing 10 days ago with hundreds of angry package goods merchants and tried to discredit the opposition with rumors that could not be substantiated.
Below this high-powered cajoling was a more philosophical issue -- whether a bill that would give chain stores the right to apply for beer and wine licenses would foster healthy competition as the food and drug stores held, or merely squeeze out the smaller merchants, as the liquor interests argued.
For the proponents, the bill simply corrected an inequity permitted by last year's legislature, when the liquor dealers managed to push through a bill specifically. Stopping the food chains from applying for the licenses. Before that, the chains had been prohibited from receiving full liquor licenses but the language on beer and wine was vague.
The opponents argued that the present law -- far from being unfair -- is a simple precaution to keep the big chains from entering the beer and wine market, dropping their prices and sending the corner liquor store the way of the "Ma and "Pa" grocery.
After the Economics Matters panel killed the measure today, several of the committee who voted against it cited the need to "protect the little guy" as their justification. Some of the same committee members, however, had a personal interest in the matter.
Take the case of Del. Louis Morsberger, who led the fight against the bill. Morsberger, an affable politician from Baltimore County, owns a tavern and package goods store in Catonsville.
"It wouldn't have hurt me that much financially," said Morsberger, after he was asked if he had a conflict of interest in helping to derail the bill. "Anyway, I have a long history of voting against big business."
Similar reasoning was given by two other committee members who own package goods stores -- Casper Taylor of Cumberland and Pat Scanello of Glen Burnie. "I don't feel guilty at all voting against this bill," said Scanello. For other committee members, the bill had more political than financial significance. Del Frank Santangelo, who said he can count 11 liquor outlets within a mile radius of his Landover home, asked the committee chairman to delay the vote until he could get to the session to register his opposition.
Del. Frank Conaway also calculated the political risks and voted "no." Conaway, a former tavern owner, ran on a ticket last year sponsored by William Adams, a Baltimore political boss with extensive interests in the liquor business.