So far, compromise eludes Mass. alcohol task force
Key members of the state’s alcohol industry are tempering expectations that a task force reviewing Massachusetts’ booze laws will deliver sweeping reforms to how beer, wine, and spirits are sold and distributed in Massachusetts, saying it’s more likely to result in modest tweaks.
The task force, charged by state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg with creating “a 21st-century alcohol law,” on Thursday issued a preliminary report identifying 12 issues, such as trade practices, licensing rules, and retail sales, that it intends to take on.
The list includes a number of highly controversial policy questions that have long divided businesses, health advocates, and policy makers.
Several alcohol-industry executives and lobbyists on committees advising the task force, however, sounded skeptical the effort can somehow solve these knotty, perennial disagreements. While more meetings are scheduled, they said they remain more or less entrenched in their existing positions.
“These committees might not come up with a lot of suggested changes or solve the major issues that come up year after year,” said Frank Anzalotti, the executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association. “I think we’ll expedite certain processes that make the system cumbersome as opposed to taking all the laws and regulations and turning them upside-down.”
With certain issues, Anzalotti added, “the nature [of them] is that there’s no solution.”
Goldberg, whose office oversees the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, convened the group in January following several embarrassing controversies over unclear, little-enforced, or seemingly nonsensical rules. The five-member task force comprises lawyers and former politicians who are independent of the industry, and it is chaired by veteran Boston attorney E. Macey Russell.
Russell remains optimistic the task force will recommend “significant and worthy” changes to the booze law, saying the process has only just started in earnest following a series of public hearings across the state earlier this year. He said the task force will suggest compromises if industry members can’t agree, and, if that fails, make its own recommendations on behalf of the public and the industry.
“I haven’t reached the point yet where I believe that change can’t happen because people are just so protective of their particular issues,” Russell said in an interview. “I think people will come out saying, ‘I had to give a little on this, but in the end, it’s better for everybody.’ ”
The group’s final report is due by the end of the year and any substantial change will require legislative approval.
One issue under consideration is the state’s controversial “franchise law,” which effectively binds beer makers to their distributors in perpetuity after an initial trial period. Brewers have long tried to weaken or eliminate the requirement, and the two sides have dueling proposals for changing the law pending before the Legislature.
Rob Burns, cofounder of Night Shift Brewing in Everett and president of the state’s craft brewing industry group, doesn’t expect a compromise on the franchise law before a September State House hearing on the issue. He said he remained hopeful the task force would find some consensus, but said members were wary of making profound changes to a complex set of intertwined laws.
“Everyone in the room is very cautious about ‘hidden traps’ that could cripple” their businesses, Burns said.
The task force also said it would tackle “pay to play,” an illegal but pervasive alcohol industry tactic in which distributors give bars and liquor retailers incentives to push their products.
Many in the industry have complained that the rule, which prohibits gifts of “substantial value,” is too vague. And some retailers question whether the law explicitly blocks them from receiving incentives.
Among the big issues the task force will tackle: whether municipalities should have more control over the number of alcohol retailers within their borders, and how those businesses can be disciplined for liquor law infractions. Currently, local boards can only suspend or revoke a retailer’s license, leading to frequent appeals to the more business-friendly state ABCC by operators who believe they were punished too harshly by local officials.
Another proposal would abolish the state cap on the number of commonly-owned supermarkets and wholesale clubs that can sell alcohol, allowing municipalities to decide instead.
Other issues include whether bars and package stores should be allowed to accept out-of-state IDs without assuming large potential financial liabilities; whether noncitizens should be granted alcohol licenses; and whether the ABCC has “sufficient staff” to work effectively.
Many of those ideas are sure to draw strong opposition. For example, public health advocates — along with independent liquor stores represented by Anzalotti — generally oppose expanding the number and type of businesses permitted to sell alcohol. Health experts also oppose making it easier for more people to drink, making the out-of-state driver’s license proposal a nonstarter for them.