Question 3 is the 2nd question this ballot season that essentially involves a “turf war,” this one in the liquor industry. This particular question involves a dispute between liquor stores and retailers like Cumberland Farms.
For reasons that I will detail below, I recommend voting “yes” on Question #3.
By Way of Background
First of all, we need to acknowledge that Massachustts essentially takes a “puritan” approach to its liquor laws. It wasn’t that long ago that we couldn’t sell liquor here on Sundays, and all of our liquor sales would go to New Hampshire “package” stores. (As it is, NH still clusters stores on the border and entices Massachusetts residents with low priced liquor on which there is no sales tax.)
The chapter that governs liquor licenses in Massachusetts is Chapter 138 of the General Laws, which provides for the number of bar and restaurant (“on premises”) licenses and the number of liquor and retail store (“off premises”) licenses that a city or town may have. This is regulated very tightly, as you can see from the paragraph of GL c.138 §17, below:
The local licensing authorities of any city or town . . . may grant one license under the provisions of section twelve for each population unit of one thousand or additional fraction thereof, and, in addition, one such license for each population unit of ten thousand or fraction thereof, over the first twenty-five thousand, but may, regardless of population, grant at least fourteen licenses under said section twelve; and the local licensing authorities may also grant one license under the provisions of section fifteen for each population unit of five thousand or additional fraction thereof, but may, regardless of population, grant at least two licenses under said section fifteen.
The legislature typically enacts about 50 bills a year increasing the number of liquor licenses that a particular city or town can have. Things like “An Act Authorizing the Town of Dalton to Grant an Additional License for the Sale of All Alcoholic Beverages Not to Be Drunk on the Premises.”
It gives them something to do.
In any case, this question does not involve on-premises licenses for bars and liquors. No, it’s a turf fight between package stores on the one hand, and retailers who can only sell beer and wine, on the other. Those retailers include Cumberland Farms, Trader Joe’s, Price Chopper, Total Wine, Shaw’s/Star Market, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Ocean State Job Lot, Roche Brothers, and even Nouria Energy, which sells beer and wine at their service stations.
For decades in Massachusetts, a single company could not sell alcohol to shoppers from more than three locations, a rule that insulated independents from big-box chains and other out-of-state rivals. Then in 2006, the supermarkets pushed a ballot question before voters that would have allowed wine in many more locations. The packies fought back. With the help of a public safety appeal to voters from police chiefs, the packies succeeded.
The food sellers tried five years later to get back on the ballot. A compromise was then reached with MassPack, allowing the cap on three locations to gradually grow, finally settling at nine.
Cumberland Farms tried to get a ballot question before voters to expand alcohol sales two years ago before shelving it in the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days. MassPack filed the ballot question as a defensive measure last year to fend off a more expansive ballot question from Cumby’s and its allies. But that threat never materialized.
This question is a compromise that has not faced any organized opposition from retailers, who seem to believe they can live with the consequences for now.
What does the Ballot Question Do?
So, what does the ballot question actually do? Essentially, these five things:
- doubles the number of licenses a retailer could have for beer and wine sales over the next few years from 9 to 18;
- limits the number of “all-alcoholic beverages” licenses that a retailer could acquire to 7;
- restricts use of self-checkout, and
- modifies the formula for calculating fines for license violations from being based on the gross profits on the sale of alcoholic beverages to being based on the gross profits on all retail sale; and
- requires retailers to accept customers’ out-of-state identification.
There is nothing really wrong with any of these five proposals. The opponents of the proposal argue that it offers an “incomplete solution to a complex problem,” and while that may be true, it’s better than nothing.
I especially like that they won’t allow self-checkout for beer and wine sales, as I’m kind of sick of having to do the retailers work for them, and I’m not sure how they would control enforcing age limits in self-checkout lines.
For the reasons listed above, I recommend voting “yes” on Question #3.