Voters in Massachusetts may have final say in a battle for control over the beverage alcohol retail tier. The Massachusetts Package Store Association (MPSA) is preparing to start a second signature campaign for a ballot question that the organization views as a compromise with larger retailers who seek unlimited beverage alcohol retail licensing. “Large retailers are seeking marketplace control,” says Rob Mellion, president of the MPSA and vice chairman of government affairs at American Beverage Licensees. “The food and convenience store chains are lobbying at a level they haven’t previously. Everyone is trying to take a piece of local retail, and our membership is fighting like their livelihood depends on it because it does.”
The MPSA has until mid-June to get another 13,300 signatures from people who didn’t sign the first signature campaign. If the measure reaches the ballot and voters approve it, the number of beer and wine licenses an entity can have will increase from nine to 18. The number of full liquor licenses per entity would decrease from nine to seven. Associations for the retail and convenience store chains Total Wine & More and Cumberland Farms oppose the initiative.
By the end of April, 226 bills that could impact beverage alcohol retail in Massachusetts have been introduced during this two-year legislative session beginning in 2021. “More bills keep being added,” Mellion said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my 16 years as a lobbyist.”
During the 2017-2018 session, there were a total of 28 bills in Massachusetts impacting alcohol retail. “That used to be normal,” Mellion says. “In the 2019-2020 session, about 100 bills were introduced. That was our signal something was up. This session has become an unashamed free-for-all by large corporate interests to gain marketplace control of alcohol beverages retail through the legislature and the courts.”
Mellion notes even when a bill is killed, it could reappear as an amendment to big bills. Amendment 528 to the house budget, for example, would allow malt producers to sell off-premises. “I’m seeking rejection or withdrawal of that amendment to the budget right now as members of the house vote on 1,522 amendments to the Massachusetts budget,” Mellion says. “Brewers tried to slip in the amendment because their bills doing the same thing were sent to study in March.”
The initiative, meanwhile, also prohibits the sale of alcohol at self-checkout and bases a fine for selling to a minor on gross store sales rather than just beverage alcohol retail sales. “Alcohol sales is necessary to us but ancillary to a lot of people that want to come into the business,” says Ryan Maloney, president of MPSA and owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Massachusetts. “If you want to be in the business, you should be playing by the same rules. The penalty needs to be big enough to shape behavior. If you are a bigger store, you have a bigger penalty.”
Massachusetts has about 1,400 standalone beverage alcohol stores. Big box stores, grocery stores, convenience stores, and retailers with no storefronts own the other alcohol licenses. The initiative will also allow Massachusetts alcohol retailers to reasonably rely on out-of-state IDs as valid proof of legal drinking age. Massachusetts is the only state prohibiting alcohol retailers to accept out-of-state IDs.
Mellion says what’s happening in Massachusetts is eventually going to occur nationwide. “We are the testing ground, unfortunately,” he says. “It is all about taking business away from retail and expanding or blurring the supplier or the wholesale tiers.”