SJC allows alcohol sales question to advance to 2020 ballot

Challenge by package stores to new food store licenses rejected

THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT ruled Tuesday that a proposed ballot question allowing for expanded alcohol and beer sales can proceed to the November ballot.

Massachusetts state law limits the number of alcohol licenses that are issued for package stores or others who want to sell alcohol for off-premises consumption. Under current law, no company can hold more than nine off-premises licenses, and cities and towns can use a population-based quota system to limit the total number of alcohol licenses they issue.

An initiative petition – spearheaded by convenience store chain Cumberland Farms – would create a new “food store license.” That license would let food retailers also sell beer and wine, with municipalities allowed to set the number of licenses they issue without regard to quotas. The initiative would gradually raise, then eliminate, the nine-license limit per company. The ballot question would also put in place new requirements related to the technology used for age verification of customers buying alcohol. It also would require the commission that oversees alcohol laws to hire one investigator per 250 retail licenses, and would establish a fund to help pay for enforcement of alcohol laws.

A group of voters who opposed the petition – primarily package store owners led by the president of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association – challenged Attorney General Maura Healey’s acceptance of the petition as constitutional. The opponents say the question was illegal because it included multiple unrelated subjects and because it included a specific appropriation.

The court, in a 19-page decision written by Justice Elspeth Cypher, ruled that all the subjects included in the petition were interrelated, since they were all part of a single proposal to lift the restrictions on alcohol sales by food retailers. Cypher wrote that the ballot question properly leaves the appropriation of money to the Legislature.

Proponents of the question now have until July 1 to gather more than 13,000 additional signatures to get it on the November ballot. The SJC has ruled that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, signatures can be collected electronically.

The other questions that are gathering signatures to get onto the ballot relate to: implementing ranked choice voting, an update to the motor vehicle right-to-repair law relating to information transmitted wirelessly, and establishing a new method for fairly funding nursing homes.