Package stores seek compromise in booze battle | News

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BOSTON — Package store owners are urging lawmakers to avoid a costly ballot fight by passing legislation to expand beer and wine sales at convenience stores.

A proposal heard by the Legislature’s Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure on Monday calls for gradually increasing the number of beer and wine licenses a single company can own — rising to 18 over the next decade.

But the proposal offered by package store owners would set a new cap of seven on how many total licenses can be issued to each business, tighten limits on the sale of liquor and spirits, enhance ID requirements for sellers and increase penalties for businesses caught selling alcohol to minors.

Package stores argue that the local beer and wine market is being flooded with big competitors seeking to drive out mom-and-pop businesses.

“This is about the survival of Main Street retail in Massachusetts,” said Rob Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, which has proposed the referendum. “That’s because they’re under attack.”

Tina Messina, owner of the Wine ConneXtion in North Andover, said she sees multinational corporations entering the market trying to squeeze out small package stores.

“What I see is large corporations coming in and trying to make changes to be able to take us out,” Messina told the panel. “And that has been very distressing.”

But a retailers group criticized the ballot proposal as a “blatant attempt to stifle competition” in the beer and wine market and urged lawmakers to revise the plans.

“Based on the various proposals considered by the committee this session, it is clear that alcohol license expansion is a goal shared across the industry by the various interested stakeholders,” Ryan Kearney, general counsel for the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, told the panel. “Unfortunately, this proposal attempts to achieve expansion in an unbalanced and discriminatory manner.”

Supporters of a referendum that would also implement the liquor law changes have gathered more than 100,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot. If lawmakers don’t approve the proposed legislation by May 4, supporters of the changes will need to gather another 13,374 signatures to make the ballot.

The ballot question is being billed as a compromise to convenience stores pushing for more beer and wine licenses, which are tightly controlled by the state.

Supermarkets and convenience stores are allowed to apply for licenses to sell beer and wine in Massachusetts, but a single company is limited to seven licenses. The cap increased to nine last year, under a previous agreement between package stores, or “packies,” and food stores.

If the packies’ proposal makes it to the 2022 ballot, it won’t be the first time voters have been asked to weigh in on the divisive issue.

In 2006, voters rejected a ballot question placed by supermarkets to lift liquor license caps to allow wine sales.

Several years later, the Massachusetts Food Association gathered signatures to put the issue on the ballot but agreed to drop the measure when the Legislature passed a law to gradually increase the number of liquor licenses that can be held by a single company.

In 2019, Westborough-based Cumberland Farms pursued a ballot question that called for eliminating the state cap on off-premise beer and wine licenses.

If the package store’s referendum is cleared for the ballot, it is likely to draw a crush of spending by supporters and opponents, both of which have extensive resources.

In the 2006 booze battle, the sides spent $13 million, according to campaign finance records. At the time it was the most costly ballot question in state history.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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