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Massachusetts is stuck in the Prohibition era on liquor licenses

The Legislature won’t let go of its reins over liquor licensing. But pandemic recovery demands that it do so.

The process of expanding the number of liquor licenses throughout the state is controlled nearly exclusively on Beacon Hill. And surely this won’t come as a shock: That’s the way many lawmakers like it.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

As Massachusetts looks for a pandemic rebound, it has become clear that restaurants, in addition to being a source of employment, are an important tool of economic development. The ability to serve a craft cocktail or glass of beer or wine is often a lifeline for those establishments.

Who didn’t love cocktails-to-go — especially if that quickly passed change in state law helped keep a favorite local joint in business? That assumed, however, the local bistro had a liquor license. As tough as things were, they were already the lucky ones. But starting a new restaurant in the current atmosphere without a liquor license — well, that’s an added degree of difficulty.


The process of expanding the number of liquor licenses throughout the state — a process that remains both antiquated and remarkably arcane — is controlled nearly exclusively on Beacon Hill. And surely this won’t come as a shock: That’s the way many lawmakers like it.

Every year — even one in the middle of a pandemic — the legislative calendar is crowded with local-option bills to provide for, say, seven more liquor licenses for Wareham, and a few for Concord or Webster. The local representative or senator is all too happy to shoulder the burden — and take some credit for a job well done. And the bills are rarely, if ever, turned down.

But it is long past time to streamline the system — and allow communities to make their own decisions about what the right number of licenses is for that city or town without going begging to Beacon Hill. A number of bills to force that shift were given a hearing Monday by the Legislature’s Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.

“It’s simply that we and this committee oftentimes hold the state of economic development in a community in our hands,” Representative Joseph McKenna of Webster told the committee. “It’s difficult and unfortunate that a restaurant needs an okay [for a liquor license] from the Legislature when everything else is moving forward.”


He said he filed his bill (along with 10 cosponsors) to shift that power to communities so they can control their own economic destinies.

More than a half-dozen other bills, including one filed by Senator Jamie Eldridge of Acton, have a similar object. A few, but not all, of those bills would specifically make those new licenses nontransferable. In other words, the license cannot be bought or sold as an asset of the restaurant if that restaurant folds or is sold to new owners.

That — especially in a city like Boston, which has made use of nontransferable licenses — is the best hope for bringing new restaurant ventures to under-served neighborhoods like Mattapan. And that means using those licenses as a tool for economic justice.

When licenses are scarce — and those that are transferable remain a scarce commodity — they are, of course, valuable and, therefore, expensive. But again, that can and should be an issue to be solved at the local level. What works for Boston may not be right for Worcester, but isn’t that for Worcester to decide?

The state’s current liquor laws date back to 1933 — yes, that would be just at the end of Prohibition, which kind of explains a lot. A task force appointed by Treasurer Deb Goldberg — whose office oversees the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission — assigned to study that law concluded, “Given the number of cities and towns filing legislation seeking more licenses . . . it appears that the 1933 density formula no longer makes sense.”


The report added, “Quota critics further argue that the legislative process to secure additional licenses is time consuming, unnecessary, and often results in a loss of real estate development projects seeking alcohol licenses.”

That was in 2017. Nothing has changed — except, of course, that more local petitions have been filed year after year at the State House, requiring 200 legislators to consider the heady question of whether Concord needs four more beer and wine licenses.

At a time when the pandemic has forced lawmakers to take a fresh look at everything from election laws to health care, this relatively small change — this tiny relinquishing of legislative power — could make a big economic difference in communities across the state and make for a speedier economic recovery.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.