Change possible in state rules for alcohol sales

Change possible in state rules for alcohol sales

Stakeholders in the fight over allowing more supermarkets and food stores in Massachusetts to sell beer and wine have agreed to a compromise bill aimed expanding access to alcoholic beverage licenses and avoiding a ballot question fight in 2012.

In 2006, Massachusetts voters rejected a ballot question, by a 53-41 percentage point margin, to permit sales of wine at food stores. At the time, package stores teams up with law enforcement officials to portray the proposal as an invitation for underage drinking and increased drunk driving.

Although a pair of ballot questions certified by Attorney General Martha Coakley last month would reintroduce that debate next year, proponents say they intend to withdraw those proposals if they can get the compromise plan through the Legislature quickly.

Sen. Michael Rodrigues told the News Service Thursday morning that the compromise bill would lift the current cap on licenses per corporation from three to five in 2012, seven in 2016 and nine in 2020.

Rodrigues said groups that have agreed to the compromise bill include the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, the Massachusetts Food Association, the Beer Distributors of Massachusetts and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Massachusetts. He described the bill’s odds of passage in the Legislature as “likely,” saying the accord between the industry groups on the issue was likely to influence legislators.

“It’s a compromise,” said Rodrigues (D-Westport). “And it’s phased in and the result of this compromise would be that the proponents would not move forward with the ballot initiative.”

Rodrigues said consumers want more options. “Consumers want choice and consumer want convenience,” he said. “In most states beer and wine are available anywhere, anyplace.”

A Rodrigues bill to allow up to 20 licenses per corporation is being amended to reflect the compromise and is marked for a Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee vote Thursday afternoon.

John Stasiowski, president of the Beer Distributors of Massachusetts, which opposed the 2006 ballot question, said the group felt there was not a need to dramatically increase the number of licenses. He said Thursday morning that the compromise does not create a new category of licenses, stays within the existing quota system and preserves the authority of local officials to approve licenses.

“We think that’s better for Massachusetts,” Stasiowski said.

Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association and a signer of the proposed 2012 ballot initiatives, said he hopes the compromise will be approved by the Legislature within the next two weeks. He said the ballot question sponsors had not begun collecting thousands of necessary signatures but would need to obtain those and file them by Nov. 23 unless lawmakers approve a compromise bill.

“The four groups have been in negotiations to see if we can avoid going back to the ballot and have come up with this compromise that we hope we can get through the Legislature,” said Flynn.

The agreement between the four groups and plans to advance the bill come amid public debate this week over a Senate-approved casino bill amendment. The amendment would give bars and restaurants the same rights as casinos, which are permitted to serve free alcoholic beverages to patrons under the bill subject to regulation by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.

Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said his organization supports the compromise bill “100 percent,” calling it a “middle-of-the-road approach.”

“It’s good even for mom-and-pops that want to expand from three locations upwards,” he said. “Frankly, in this economy, in order to expand your sales, you’ve got to have a few more [licenses].”

Hurst said that by expanding the number of licenses available to chains, but maintaining a cap on the total number of licenses in the state, “it makes the existing permits more valuable.”

“If you’re a small package store owner and you’re looking to potentially retire and move out and sell out, the value of the permit you hold, if you don’t increase the number of permits in your town or statewide, the value of that permit is higher, quite frankly,” he said. “That becomes, essentially, a retirement plan for that package store … If they decide to go out of business, they’re going to be able to sell that permit to either a competitor or a larger chain for a lot more money.”

Hurst said he was hoping the bill would also address a quirk in the state’s blue laws that prohibits alcohol sales the day after Christmas in any year that Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, as it does this year.