Liquor license ballot question has layers of controversy
So-called ‘compromise’ bill pits packies against food stores
NURSE STAFFING ratios. Right to repair. Zoning reform. Almost every election, there is at least one ballot question that defies easy explanation and generally boils down to a dispute among interest groups. This year, add liquor license reform to the list.
The question heading towards the November 2022 ballot involves a dispute between package stores and food and convenience stores about how many alcohol licenses should be available to different types of stores and what rules should govern them.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure held a hearing Monday, which only highlighted how confusing the ballot question is.
Currently, Massachusetts offers one license that lets a retailer sell all types of alcoholic beverages, and another license that only allows beer and wine sales. No single entity can hold more than nine licenses, so chain stores are limited in how many of their locations can sell alcohol. The ballot question and a related bill would increase the total number of licenses a single entity can hold from nine to 18 by 2031. But it would lower the number of “all alcoholic beverages” licenses that a single entity can hold from nine to seven.
“This question is about the survival of Main Street retail in Massachusetts. They’re under attack,” said Rob Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, at the virtual hearing.
Cumberland Farms, however, is not backing the so-called “compromise.” It is instead pushing for a bill that would create a separate and unlimited “food store license” to sell alcohol – a bill the package stores say would let food stores flood the market with corporate outlets and discounted products.
Food stores are also complaining that the package stores inserted a “poison pill” into the ballot question through a change in how fines are levied. Now, licensees who violate state alcohol laws (for example, by selling to a minor) can pay a fine in lieu of having their license suspended. The size of the fine is based on their gross profit from alcohol sales. The ballot question seeks to change that so the fine is based on all the store’s sales, not just alcohol sales.
Grocery stores say this is unfair because it would vastly increase the size of the fines only for businesses whose prime product is not alcohol. “There is no correlation with any deli, bakery, seafood or other grocery department purchase and any purchase made of an age regulated item such as alcohol or tobacco in a food store,” wrote Brian Houghton of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents grocery stores, in written testimony.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said this provision is “a discriminatory effort to create a regulatory disincentive for those establishments to sell and serve alcohol to their customers.”There is also a dispute over whether it is good public policy to ban self-checkout of alcohol, which the ballot question would do.
For years, some policymakers have argued that complex measures are best left to the Legislature, not the voters to decide, since legislation allows for nuance that ballot questions do not. The legislative process lets lawmakers balance the concerns of various stakeholders in writing a bill, while the ballot question is written by one side.