Bay State liquor licensing foibles
Massachusetts lawmakers probably thought they had dispensed with national embarrassment when they criminalized upskirting in record time. They forgot about the state’s bizarre liquor licensing laws, which require cities and towns to petition the Legislature for additional liquor licenses if a community has reached its population-based quota on licenses for restaurant and bars.
A restaurant or bar owner can avoid the time-consuming petition process by trying to buy an existing license. It’s perfectly legal, but the quest for all-too few licenses has produced black market-type pricing in some places. Obtaining a Boston liquor license this way can run anywhere from $265,000 to $285,000 and can potentially set a business owner back as much as $450,000.
Slate recently outlined why the law doesn’t make economic good sense:
Bringing new restaurants and bars into an area is a great way to spur economic development and revitalize communities, just as capping one of the key resources that makes those eateries financially viable is a surefire way to hamper those goals. Massachusetts has an easy and likely inexpensive way of fixing the problem. But when the relics of Puritan culture are so entrenched in a state’s culture and economy, they die especially hard.
As part of his economic development package, the governor proposed returning decision-making authority to municipalities. That plan got a big Bronx cheer from the powerful Massachusetts Restaurant Association. The proposal did not appear in the House version of the bill.
Bob Luz, the restaurant association’s CEO, believes any change would unfairly disadvantage current liquor license holders who sometimes use liquor licenses as collateral for borrowing. Mayors like Lowell’s Rodney Elliott fear the crime that might follow with more bars in a given neighborhood.
Rep. Joseph Wagner, the Chicopee Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, sees the current law as an important check on communities. “On balance, I think it’s a healthier approach to leave the process as is,” he recently told the State House News Service.
Opponents of the current law are pretty much in Slate’s camp. The Metro West Daily News would like to see the Prohibition-era relic tossed out altogether, but instead urged House lawmakers to amend the bill to restore Patrick’s original proposal.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, made his case for his own bill in the Daily News, too, joining a long line of municipal leaders including Mayors Marty Walsh of Boston, Joe Curtatone of Somerville,and James Fiorentini of Haverhill who want to dispense with the license caps. Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley has also long been a longtime critic.
Liquor licensing makes for strange bedfellows. Even the Boston Herald is backing the push to see the law to go the way of the 18th Amendment: “[House Speaker Robert] DeLeo and Wagner should entertain amendments to their bill that would restore local control. Being petty or power-hungry is no way to promote growth.”
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