BOSTON — After dodging what would have been a well-funded campaign to lift the liquor license cap for grocery stores, Massachusetts parcel shop owners told lawmakers they had come to the table with a compromise essential to their future survival.
The Massachusetts Package Stores Association has proposed a change to state liquor licensing laws to double the number of licenses a retailer can hold to 18 by 2031, but to lower the cap on licenses for sale. of all alcoholic beverages – beer, wine and liquor – from nine to seven.
The proposal heading into the November ballot would also put in place new rules banning self-checking of alcoholic beverages and allowing retailers to accept out-of-state ID.
“One of the reasons we have this issue on the ballot is the change in the retail landscape of large companies looking to take over the market,” said Rob Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association.
The initiative, however, faces opposition from a host of food industry groups, including the Massachusetts Food Association representing supermarkets, the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, Cumberland Farms, Whole Foods and Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
Cumberland Farms began an effort in 2020 to ask a ballot question that would have created a new liquor license for grocery stores and phased out the cap on the number of licenses retailers can hold. National broadcaster dropped campaign amid worsening COVID-19 pandemic and opted against a second effort this year to work with lawmakers on a bill to create a new licensing category allowing grocery stores to sell beer and wine.
While the convenience of one-stop shopping has proven popular with consumers, package store owners say the ability of big business to dominate the market and rewrite the rules in their favor threatens their livelihoods.
MPSA has stepped up its own proposal which it presents this year as common ground.
“It’s probably one of the only ballot initiatives you’ll ever get that isn’t entirely self-serving, because we looked inside ourselves and said, ‘What can we do compromise? “,” said Ryan Maloney, president of Massachusetts Package Stores. Association and owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westboro.
The Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Business Licensing held an afternoon hearing on the petition at which parcel shop owners described their proposal as key to preserving some market share in retail. alcohol retail in Massachusetts for small independent businesses to large out-of-state businesses. businesses muscle up in space.
The Massachusetts Retailers Association, however, said the proposal came with “poison pill provisions” and said that despite its support for expanding existing caps on licenses, the organization opposed to the bill as presented.
“We consider this to be overbroad and a blatant attempt to stifle competition from companies seeking to offer a wide range of products,” said Ryan Kearney, RAM’s general counsel.
Kearney’s concerns were echoed in numerous letters submitted in opposition.
“It is neither fair nor rational to limit multi-store grocers to a limited number of full licenses they can hold statewide simply because they sell food,” wrote Brian Houghton, vice -senior president of the Massachusetts Food Association.
Matthew Durand, senior counsel for Cumberland Farms, told the committee in written testimony that the ‘flaws and inadequacies’ of the ballot question had failed to address food outlets’ concerns and that the company remained interested in working to a legislative solution.
The Legislative Assembly has until May 4 to act on the petition before promoters return to the field to collect the remaining 13,374 voter signatures required to qualify for the November ballot. If lawmakers choose not to act by this deadline, a legislative compromise could still be reached, before signatures are delivered to Secretary of State William Galvin by July 6, to prevent the issue from appearing on the ballot.
Rep. Tackey Chan, a Democrat from Quincy and House committee chairman, did not say whether he thought the Legislature wanted to address the issue in the coming month, though he encouraged all players to keep talking.
The Massachusetts Retailers Association said it opposes two provisions in particular in the ballot issue: the reduction in the cap on all-liquor retail licenses and a new method of calculating fines that a retailer may pay in lieu of a license suspension if found selling alcohol. in violation of state laws.
Fines imposed under the ballot question would be calculated based on an establishment’s gross receipts from all retail sales rather than just its gross liquor sales, potentially placing a greater financial burden on retailers who sell more than alcohol.
Maloney said the new fine structure is needed to keep big honest retailers whose alcohol sales represent a small percentage of their overall business.
“If you can still function without selling alcohol, will the sanction really change your behavior? I don’t think so,” Maloney said.
But Kearney called it “unfairly punitive” and disputed the suggestion that it would only affect big-box chains like Walmart.
“A small bodega on Main Street that sells 50% alcohol and 50% other products would have their fines doubled,” Kearney said.
The retailers’ association also said lowering the licensing cap for the sale of all alcoholic beverages would be a “regression” from legislation passed a decade ago which only came into full effect in 2020, raising the cap to nine.
“We believe there is reasonable common ground that should be explored, but we know the nature of it because a ballot initiative may not lead to such negotiations,” Kearney said.
In 2006, voters rejected an election question championed by supermarkets that would have allowed grocery stores to sell beer and wine. Five years later, as supermarkets and other interest groups threatened to return to the ballot in 2012, lawmakers struck a deal to avoid an election battle by raising the cap on the number of licenses for all sales of alcohol that a company can hold from three to nine. .
Chan noted that because the petition is a ballot initiative, the committee cannot change the proposal, but in the past the legislature has been able to negotiate compromise legislation on other issues that was enough to convince supporters of the voting issues to abandon their campaigns.
The increase in the license cap for retailers would gradually increase, according to the ballot, from nine to 12 in 2023, to 15 licenses in 2027 and to 18 licenses in 2031.
“Some opponents have called this election initiative radical or discriminatory,” Mellion said. “It is not so.”
Mellion also said the cap is significantly higher than any other state in the country with a three-tier alcohol regulatory system — producers, distributors and retailers. “This ballot initiative creates 18 licenses for out-of-state interests that have been requesting unlimited licenses for 20 years. It’s a compromise,” he said.
Tina Messina, owner of Wine Connection in North Hanover, said the proposed ballot question provision prohibiting self-policing of liquor purchases is also a key feature.
“When I see things like self-service checkout, I shake my head,” Messina said, saying it takes human interaction to prevent the sale of alcohol to a minor or someone who might be in trouble. drunk when she tries to buy alcohol.