Reinforcements could soon be on the way for the state’s liquor enforcement agency, politics permitting.
The new treasurer, Deborah Goldberg, asked the Legislature on Tuesday to boost funding for the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, or ABCC, by nearly $1 million, saying she plans to add investigators to police the casinos that are scheduled to open soon in Massachusetts.
The ABCC currently has just 15 investigators to oversee thousands of bars, restaurants, breweries, and other licensed businesses but will soon have to monitor casinos and slot parlors, as well as process a surge of new license applications. Goldberg is asking lawmakers to increase the budget 36 percent, to $3.15 million.
“It is critical that we receive more resources to ensure we are doing all we can to prevent alcohol-related injuries and incidents across the state,” Goldberg said in prepared remarks submitted to lawmakers Tuesday. But her request comes as legislators and Governor Charlie Baker are trying to close a $1.8 billion state budget gap.
Although several lawmakers and Baker himself had previously expressed support for increasing the agency’s funding, they made those remarks months before the size of the budget shortfall became apparent.
Baker’s proposal last week called for keeping ABCC funding at the same level it was reduced to after recent mid-fiscal year cuts. This week, his office seemed to pour cold water on Goldberg’s proposal.
“Governor Baker understands the treasurer’s concerns, but given the $1.8 billion deficit inherited from the previous administration, we are pleased that our budget proposal protects ABCC from budget cuts,” Baker’s press secretary, Elizabeth Guyton, said in a statement.
Under Goldberg’s proposal, the additional money would be used to hire five new investigators and several other staffers. ABCC investigators are the front-line enforcers of Massachusetts’ myriad liquor laws and regulations, ensuring that licensed beer brewers, winemakers, distillers, bars, restaurants, and distributors play by the rules. Their responsibilities range from busting restaurants for serving underage patrons alcohol to investigating outlawed trade practices like “pay-to-play,” in which distributors and brewers use inducements to get bars to carry their beers while excluding those of competitors.
Goldberg argued the ABCC generates more money than it spends, contributing $4.2 million to the state last year from fees and fines it collected. She also noted that Massachusetts has the fifth-lowest ratio of liquor enforcement agents to licensees of any state.
Pressure on the ABCC has been increasing from all sides.
The number of investigators is down sharply from the 1980s, when it had around 40 on staff. But in recent years, the number of craft brewers and retailers has skyrocketed, leaving the lean agency to handle more license applications and inspect more and more businesses for violations.
A new law allowing consumers to mail-order wine from other states is also adding to the workload; since December, the ABCC has processed 498 applications from out-of-state vineyards seeking permission to ship into Massachusetts.
And soon, under a provision of the state’s 2011 casino gambling law, investigators will be required to take turns working for the Gaming Commission’s Liquor Enforcement Unit, policing newly opened casinos and slot parlors for violations.
Although “happy hour” promotions are forbidden at bars and restaurants, the Massachusetts law lets casinos serve free drinks — but only in gaming areas, not in attached hotels or restaurants.
Finally, the alcohol agency is wrapping up an intensive investigation into whether beer distributors broke state and federal laws by paying retailers to carry their products. The inquiry has required the agency to interview dozens of people, delve into complex accounting practices, and sift through boxes of financial records obtained by subpoena; a number of investigators were pulled off their regular enforcement beats to help with the work.
Some legislators have previously said that investigators should not be forced to choose between enforcing trade rules, designed to protect small businesses from being shut out of the market, and policing potentially deadly violations such as bars serving patrons who are already intoxicated.
“Clearly, there have been increasing demands on the ABCC that will require additional resources to fulfill,” said John Scibak, a Democratic representative from South Hadley who cochairs the committee that oversees the alcohol industry.