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CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

After voters rejected Question 3, where you can buy beer will be up to the Legislature again

All sides in the long-running saga over retail booze sales in Massachusetts see a silver lining in last week’s vote rejecting a compromise ballot measure.

Advocates for locally-owned package liquor stores see silver linings in last week's defeat of a ballot measure that would have raised the cap on retail alcohol licenses but kept a far broader expansion at bay.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

The voters have spoken on Question 3. But what did they actually say? Well, that depends on whom you ask.

Because 55 percent voted against it last week, the political hot potato of where a retail chain can sell alcohol gets tossed back to the State House. There, legislative leaders may try to parse some sort of meaning out of the results on Election Day.

Good luck with that.

The head of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, Question 3′s main proponent, views the vote as a show of support for his small-business membership and, by implication, limits on chain stores selling alcohol — even though he technically lost the campaign. Meanwhile, national liquor giant Total Wine & More, which poured nearly $3 million into defeating Question 3, interprets the result in the opposite way: that Massachusetts shoppers want more competition, not less.

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And many neutral but not disinterested observers, such as convenience store chain Cumberland Farms and the supermarkets in the Massachusetts Food Association, saw an additional lesson: Question 3 was simply too confusing.

It’s easy to see why. Start with the up-and-down language. Question 3 would have expanded the number of places where a single company can sell beer and wine to 18 shops from the current cap of nine, over the course of a decade. But it also would have trimmed the number of stores where a single company could sell spirits from nine to seven. Then there were a few rules reforms thrown in for good measure, such as allowing out-of-state IDs for age confirmation and banning automated checkouts for alcohol purchases.

What’s up with the hodgepodge? The question was written as a defensive maneuver by the package-store association to fend off a proposal — expected from Cumberland Farms — that might have given the chains far more beer-and-wine licenses. That would have been bad news for MassPack’s mom-and-pops who, until recently, have generally not had to worry much about big retail chains.

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Cumby’s tried its own expansion push in the previous election cycle, but the proposal didn’t reach the ballot. The Westborough-based chain, now part of British conglomerate EG Group, chose not to revive the ballot question this time around. But it certainly isn’t giving up on the dream of selling more beer and wine.

MassPack went ahead with its countermeasure anyway, portraying Question 3 as a good-faith compromise attempt. The packies hoped to settle this issue, maybe once and for all.

If MassPack won, it would have been much tougher for the food-store lobbyists to go back to the Legislature and ask for more restrictions to be lifted. And MassPack argues that a state elections law, one that prohibits duplicative measures from reappearing in the next two election cycles, would keep another alcohol expansion proposal from getting on the ballot until 2028. A lobbyist for Cumby’s disputes this interpretation, saying anything it pursues would be different enough from Question 3 to not trigger the six-year block. It’s the kind of disagreement that might only be resolved by the state Supreme Judicial Court.

Frankie Arguinzni, an employee at Supreme Liquors in Cambridge getting down three 1.75 liter bottles of vodka from a the top shelf for a customer on April 28, 2020. Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

This time around, MassPack appeared to have a good shot at winning Question 3 after Cumby’s and the supermarkets opted to stay out of it.

But things got more confusing when Total Wine, the largest liquor-store chain in the country, entered the fight with just weeks to go before Election Day. The Maryland-based behemoth, which has six stores in Massachusetts and licenses for two more, started running TV ads and distributing flyers portraying Question 3 as hurtful to family businesses. The message carried a grain of truth. There was indeed at least one family-owned business opposed: Total Wine, owned by brothers David and Robert Trone.

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Rob Mellion, MassPack’s executive director, isn’t happy with Total Wine’s tricks. But he’s not bemoaning the loss. He sounds energized, in fact.

Mellion said his recruitment efforts around Question 3, to do battle with the chains, helped drive up his membership numbers to 760 local businesses, from 680 about a year ago. That’s a record for MassPack, following several years in which chains increasingly bought out licenses held by mom-and-pops. Question 3, Mellion said, unified his industry.

That’s not the only reason Mellion sees last week’s loss as a win.

By his calculus, nearly all the voters who said “yes” did so to help small businesses, and at least 10 percent of those voting no wanted to do so as well, but were confused by Total Wine’s ads. Mellion doesn’t have scientific polling data to support this. But he did field a stream of calls since the Total Wine ads appeared from people wondering why Question 3 was written to hurt small businesses — when, in fact, it wasn’t.

There’s a good reason MassPack’s membership last peaked in 2011. That’s the year state lawmakers brokered a deal with the packies, the supermarkets, and the wholesalers that upended the state’s long-standing limit of three retail licenses per company, eventually raising the cap to its current level of nine. Only four retailers have reached nine so far — partly because the state also imposes license limits by community — though a number of others are close.

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Will it be let’s-make-a-deal time again when state lawmakers return in 2023? That could be tough. MassPack wants to keep the status quo of no more than nine stores per company. The Massachusetts Food Association doesn’t want hard alcohol to be left out of another cap increase. Cumby’s prefers the creation of an entirely new food-store license, to raise the cap for beer and wine sales, and provide relief to cities and towns from the population-based quotas that often prompt begging on Beacon Hill for help. Total Wine declined to say what it wants.

Given the likelihood of a standoff, Mellion expects legislators may simply throw up their hands in frustration. Maybe the issue even gets kicked back to the voters, eventually.

No promises that it would be any simpler to understand the next time.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.