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Talking points

Major overhaul of state’s beer, wine, and liquor laws proposed

The price of beer, wine, and liquor in Massachusetts would increase, but unpopular restrictions on the sale of alcohol would go away, under a radical proposed overhaul of the state’s byzantine booze laws that’s expected to be unveiled by a government-appointed task force Thursday. The proposals include increasing the state’s excise taxes on beer, wine, and liquor by about 50 percent and banning discounts for package stores and bars for buying bulk quantities from wholesalers. If the measures are enacted, the companies could pass some or all of the new costs onto drinkers, while the state would reap tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue. But the task force also recommends relaxing rules that annoy shoppers and businesses alike, saying that the state should abolish the limit on the number of alcohol licenses grocery store chains can hold, allow bars to accept out-of-state photo IDs, and permit brew pubs to sell beer through other retailers. The group also proposed making it easier for business to obtain all-alcohol licenses while limiting the issuance of beer-and-wine-only permits. That could lead to more establishments that sell hard liquor, rather than just beer and wine. While most of these measures would need approval from the Legislature, they nonetheless represent the most extensive official rethinking of alcohol rules in Massachusetts since many were put in place at the end of Prohibition in 1933. “Massachusetts appears to be experiencing a moment of openness to reform of liquor licensing laws, and a rejection of the status quo in situations where the 1933 laws no longer make sense,” the task force said in its report, acknowledging the modest loosening of rules governing the sale and shipment of alcohol in the state made by the Legislature recently. — DAN ADAMS


IRS bulletin prompts more questions on prepayment of taxes

IRS guidance for property owners seeking to prepay taxes before the end of 2017 triggered a new round of confusion in some municipalities that had rushed to clarify their payment setups for frantic residents. Friday was the last business day of the year for cities and towns to accept in-person payments, and some local officials report being deluged as residents seek clarification and advice about the federal tax law President Trump signed Dec. 22. Beginning in 2018, taxpayers who itemize deductions on their federal returns cannot deduct more than $10,000 for state and local tax payments, meaning that residents of high-tax areas such as the Northeast will lose a substantial benefit. After the tax law was signed, many taxpayers sought to prepay their 2018 property taxes, hoping to capture the tax break. Flooded with questions, some tax preparers suggested that their clients make the payments, and cities and towns told residents they would be able to accept the early checks. Then, on Wednesday, the Internal Revenue Service issued a bulletin clarifying that taxpayers can claim deductions only on tax bills that have already been issued. Massachusetts municipalities operate on a fiscal year that begins July 1, so payments made on bills issued through the billing cycle that ends June 30 would qualify for the deduction, but not those for the remainder of 2018. The IRS statement triggered a round of explanations from local officials that underscore the differing, sometimes conflicting advice taxpayers are getting. Newton, for example, issued a notice Wednesday in which it referenced Wellesley’s earlier policy of accepting payments for all of 2018, suggesting that it, too, had received questions about accepting similar payments. Several municipalities had made clear to residents before the IRS notice that they would not accept advance payments for taxes owed during the second half of calendar year 2018, since those taxes won’t be set until the new fiscal year assessment is confirmed.



Massachusetts home sales, prices were up again in November

Massachusetts home sales were up slightly in November, compared with a year earlier, but a continued lack of homes on the market — a record low for the month — caused prices to rise. The median price of a single-family house in November hit $384,000, a 4.1 percent increase over the same time last year, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. Median sale prices climbed or remained flat in 24 of the last 25 months. The association counted 4,799 sales last month, half a percent higher than in November 2016. The Warren Group, which tracks a larger pool of transactions in Massachusetts, indicated that last month’s 5,124 single-family home sales were a record high for the month of November, a 1.2 percent increase over the same time last year. Condominiums fared even better last month, with the median price climbing about 8 percent over last year’s to $368,000, according to the association’s figures. Sales increased more than 10 percent over the same time last year. Separately on Tuesday, the nation’s most widely followed benchmark of home prices, the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Indices, reported that home values in the Boston area for October nudged downward by 0.2 percent from September. But over the past 12 months home prices in Boston are up 6.9 percent, slightly above the US average. — KATHELEEN CONTI



City to seek ideas for public use of rundown Seaport pier

After a conservation group and a developer each proposed unusual plans for the 6-acre Seaport district site known as Dry Dock #4, the Walsh administration has taken a second look at the site as a place for the public. As part of a review of properties in South Boston’s waterfront industrial park, the Boston Planning & Development Agency has proposed relaxing restrictions that limit Dry Dock #4 to commercial marine and port activities. With City Hall under fire from some quarters over the lack of parkland in the Seaport, the Walsh administration has said it will solicit proposals this spring for public use and open space on the dry dock. “I would hope that those contemplating uses would certainly focus on parks and open space,” said Richard Taylor, director of Suffolk University’s Center for Real Estate. “This is a great opportunity to fill that gap, to fill that void. . . . For the Seaport to be regarded as a neighborhood, you need additional spaces like that.” — JON CHESTO



Farmers’ complaints prompt review of land preservation program

A 40-year-old state program designed to preserve agricultural land is under review amid complaints from farmers about how it is run. The criticism focuses on the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture’s intervening in the sale of farm properties. Some farmers have bristled when the department, using its right of first refusal, has rejected buyers. The 1977 Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program was a first-in-the nation attempt to protect farmland from commercial and residential development. The program uses taxpayer money to purchase the development rights to farmers’ land. Owners get money in exchange for giving up the option of selling the properties for nonagriculture uses. Development rights to about 900 farms across the state have been sold under the program, keeping 73,000 acres free of strip malls, housing, and other development, according to the department. Yet the program faces mounting criticism. A recent survey by the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, a lobbying organization representing farmers, found that up to a third of respondents were dissatisfied with at least some aspects of the program. That has led the Department of Agriculture to create a review panel that will advise Agricultural Commissioner John LeBeaux on farmland policies. One state lawmaker has proposed legislation that would address agricultural land owners’ concerns. — EOIN HIGGINS