Hope Rests in Senate as Michigan House Passes Ban on Retail to Consumer Direct Shipments

Michigan House Bill 6644 passed with 97 Yeas and 9 Nays on December 4, 2008. If passed by the Senate, HB 6644 would ban all retailers, in-state and out-of-state, from direct shipping wine to Michigan residents. In the last days of Michigan’s current legislative session, expected to adjourn soon, the failure or passage of this bill will either give new life to or end Michigan retail direct shipping.

Less than three months ago, Michigan Federal District Court Judge Denise Hood ruled unconstitutional a Michigan law that allowed in-state retailers to direct ship to consumers while denying out-of-state retailers the same right. However, before out-of-state retailers could even fancy direct shipping wine, Governor Granholm, the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association (BWWA), and the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (LCC) filed an appeal, effectively suspending all attempts to open up the Michigan wine market in conformity with Judge Hood’s ruling. In the two short months following the stay from the appeal, Representatives Barbara Farrah and Chris Ward introduced HB 6644 to stop all retailers from competing with wholesalers.

The bill sponsors did little to hide their true objective in expediting the bill through Michigan’s Legislature. In its Legislative Analysis, the Committee on Regulatory Reform, which recommended the bill, repeatedly declares the need to protect the three-tier distribution system, citing how well it has served Michigan businesses and residents for 75 years. Among the other arguments in favor of the bill, the committee points to the supposed “untold amounts of revenue” that would be lost due to the lack of a “legal framework to license these out-of-state retail liquor establishments and to collect the same excise taxes and sales and use taxes levied on Michigan retailers and suppliers.” This argument assumes that the Michigan LCC is incapable of establishing new administrative procedures in the face of change, a reflection of an antiquated administration and not the feasibility of implementing new regulations. The bill sponsors, arguing arduously for the protection of the three-tier system, seem to overlook the very functional winery direct to consumer shipping market in Michigan which has had a regulatory system in place since April 2006. The SWRA proposes that the same rules and paperwork with which the Michigan LCC regulates direct shipping wineries can realistically be applied to retailers, thus increasing tax revenue, a straightforward process that the Michigan LCC and BWWA fail to acknowledge.

As expected, the Michigan LCC and the Michigan BWWA support the bill while the Michigan Restaurant Association (MRA) opposes it. The MRA recognizes that if the bill were to pass, members who hold retail beer and wine licenses would also be banned from serving those beverages at catered events, an important part of their business services.

Despite the disheartening speed and overwhelming majority with which the Michigan House passed the bill—it took three legislative days to go from introduction to vote—there are indications that the same will not occur in the Senate. Retailers interested in shipping wine to Michigan residents have ridden a roller coaster of legislation changes for several years; but the fate of retailer direct shipments could be set for the foreseeable future before the New Year rings in.

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