Package stores pushing ‘compromise’ ballot question

Measure would lift, but not eliminate, license cap

RYAN MALONEY, the owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Massachusetts, sits in his office with a baseball cap hanging behind him that says, “Alcohol you later.” He looks a visitor up and down, squints, and says, “I’d ID you.” For Maloney, alcohol is a livelihood, and that’s why he’s supporting the Massachusetts Package Stores Association’s 2022 ballot question that would increase the number of beer and wine licenses that one entity can hold from nine to 18, while reducing the hard liquor permits per entity from nine to seven.

The association’s proposal comes on the heels of a withdrawn 2019 Cumberland Farms proposal that would have eliminated the license cap altogether and is being billed as a compromise by the package stores because it increases the number of licenses a big corporation like Cumberland Farms could hold.

“A lot of outside interests want to blow the doors out and have alcohol available everywhere,” said Maloney. “It’s just that alcohol is a livelihood for us [liquor store owners] and at big stores and supermarkets it’s just a department in their store.”

Skeptics of the package store association’s proposed licensing changes include Jon Hurst, president of the Massachusetts Retailers Association, whose membership includes about 4,000 retailers, including small businesses and major corporations. Hurst said he supports removing the cap altogether because having more choice empowers the consumer.

“A free marketplace allows consumers more options, lower cost, and to frankly get the government out of that decision-making process and allow the marketplace to work better,” he says. If the package store association’s question goes to the ballot, he says, “I don’t know where we’ll be. It might be that we’re neutral, it might be that we’re in opposition.”

The threat of another Cumberland Farms ballot question, as well as a rapidly growing number of State House bills proposing to deregulate the industry, put the package stores association’s back against the wall. Robert Mellion, executive director and general counsel of the association, calls his organization’s proposal a win for mom-and-pop shops and a compromise with the big corporations—the Cumberland Farms, Targets, and Walmarts—that want to lift the license cap altogether.

“We would prefer to keep everything the way that it is right now,” said Mellion. “The reason why [we’re doing this] is because of Cumberland Farms…We began this year with all these bills and the threat of Cumberland Farms going at it again. That’s the reason we filed this ballot question.”

Cumberland Farms didn’t refile its proposal for 2022. Matt Durand, head of public policy for Cumberland Farms, said the company is instead focusing its support on H.318, which would create a new type of license to allow food stores to sell beer and wine without restrictions.

Mellion positions his proposal as an “olive branch” to the retail giant because it raises the number of total licenses that can be allotted to chain stores like Cumberland Farms, while limiting the total number of available licenses. Emily Pickering, a spokeswoman for Cumberland Farms, said the company has no comment on the package stores association proposal.

While Hurst argues that a free market benefits the consumer by providing more options and lower prices, Maloney argues that the opposite is true. If the few big sellers in Massachusetts were allowed to sell alcohol without restrictions, Maloney maintains, local liquor stores would go out of business. If that happens, he argues, a general lack of competition would end up limiting the range of brands available to in-state buyers.

Right now, Maloney says, he couldn’t fit all the Chardonnays available across the state in his 36,000-square-foot store. “If we create a state where alcohol is controlled by bigger companies, it becomes like Florida,” he said. “If you like Budweiser and White Claw, it’s everywhere, but if you like something different, the specialty items are completely gone.”

Maloney also thinks eliminating the cap could lead to higher costs for consumers. “Short term it may be good for the consumer but long term, when the chains are the only game left in town, they can charge whatever they want,” he said.

These talking points seem to be resonating with voters. To get a question on the ballot in Massachusetts, a group needs to collect signatures from the equivalent of 3 percent of the turnout for the last gubernatorial election, or 80,239 signatures. The package store association collected almost 210,000 signatures before the December 1 deadline. Mellion says store owners are enthusiastic about the ballot initiative and instantly mobilized to drum up support.

“This is a fight by local retail to be viable five years from now. They’re fighting for their lives,” he said. The association also hired a third-party firm that sent employees to liquor stores across Massachusetts to gather support. The firm charged $5 to $8 per signature, Mellion says. “It was very expensive but we had to do it because we were fighting for the existence of our membership,” he said. “We had the reserves and we spent them.”

The package store association leadership was pleasantly surprised by the willingness of Massachusetts residents to support the question and think it bodes well for 2022. “[The [signature drive] demonstrates that the public gets it and they actually care about where their alcohol is coming from,” said Mellion. “They care about their local store.”

One piece of the package store association initiative that chains like Cumberland Farms emphatically object to is the proposal to change the fine structure for any store caught breaking alcohol laws. Right now, if Cumberland Farms is caught selling to a minor, the company would be fined a percentage of their total alcohol sales. The package store association’s proposal would require that the fine instead be based on total sales of food, gas etc. — a much larger sum.

“The package store association threw some poison pills into their question,” Hurst said about the change in fine structure. “It was a little questionable, maybe even mean spirited, to try to go after food sellers and try to keep them out of the alcoholic beverage business.”

The package stores association contends that the change, along with another piece of their proposal that bans self-checkout for alcohol purchases, is designed to make sure everyone who sells alcohol is incentivized to follow the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission’s rules to ensure safe alcohol buying practices.

“The only way to penalize to change behavior is if the penalty has an impact,” said Maloney. “A big store doesn’t care if they’re fined $10,000 or $20,000 for selling to an underage kid, but suddenly it becomes a big deal if it’s coming out of everything they do.”

In the coming months the state Legislature will consider the package store ballot initiative. Mellion predicts the Legislature won’t choose sides, as it did with Cumberland Farms’ proposal in 2020. “A legislator is either going to upset the big corporations or upset every local store in the state, so the best thing they can do politically is nothing and let the voters decide,” he says.

If the Legislature fails to act, the association will need to collect an additional 13,374 (.5 percent of the last gubernatorial election turnout) new signatures by July 6, 2022 to get the question on the 2022 state ballot.

The package store association has already begun fundraising for a 2022 advertising campaign, and Mellion is gearing up for the next signature campaign, which will have to be completed in a very short window and requires a fresh set of signatories. Back at Julio’s Liquors, Maloney says he’s proud of the package store association’s independent retailers for stepping up in support of the initiative. But that doesn’t mean he’s excited about the increase in licenses the inmitiative would provide if it is approved.

Meet the Author

Alex Sharp

Student/Writer, Tufts University/Student Dispatch
“Listen,” he says, “I don’t want a lot of people having licenses but somebody’s gotta’ step up and be the adult in the room so we can come to some sort of accord here.”

Alex Sharp is a student at Tufts University participating in the Student Dispatch, a writing program run by political scientist Eitan Hersh and editor Rachel Slade. The purpose of the program is to give the students a chance to write about state and local news and gain valuable skills they need to be good citizens and writers. The pilot program is funded with a grant from the Tisch College at Tufts.