Remember the Booze Ballot Battle of 2006? Well, we might soon see a new war break out over the right to sell alcohol in Massachusetts.
Cumberland Farms filed a ballot question with the state attorney general’s office on Wednesday that would lift the state restrictions on the number of alcohol licenses a food retailer can have. The move surprised just about everyone who thought the issue was settled for now.
The convenience store chain argues that it’s time to modernize the state’s archaic liquor laws, while package stores are gearing up for a fierce fight to defend their turf.
The packies won the first round 13 years ago, beating back supermarket chains that wanted to lift the caps and persuading voters to keep a three-store-maximum in place. But it was a bruising battle: The $12 million-plus spent by both sides represented the most expensive ballot war in state history at the time.
No one who was involved wanted to go through that again — except for maybe the media outlets that guzzled down all that advertising money like a college freshman at a kegger. So when the supermarket industry raised the prospect of another ballot question in 2011, the package stores and their allies in the alcohol distribution industry quickly reached a truce. That compromise was quickly whisked through the Legislature and baked into state law.
The number of alcohol sales licenses per retailer would go up, gradually rising from three to nine in January 2020. Both sides agreed to not push any further changes, at least until after the final increase took effect next year. And because the deadline to request certification for the 2020 ballot was Wednesday, both sides thought they had avoided a Booze Ballot Battle II until at least 2022.
But the convenience store industry apparently wasn’t part of that 2011 deal.
For Cumby’s, a win at the ballot box could be like striking gold. The Westborough-based chain, which recently reached a deal to be sold to the Britain-based EG Group, has more than 200 stores in this state. Only seven of those can sell alcohol today. Matt Durand, the chain’s government affairs manager, says he expects that number to increase to nine next year, as allowed by the 2011 compromise.
Durand says the ballot question can be traced back to his time on a liquor laws task force overseen by state Treasurer Deb Goldberg. Among that group’s recommendations: allowing local authorities to decide how many licenses should be issued to food stores in their communities.
The Cumby’s proposal would lift the caps on traditional off-premise sales licenses over time, until they are eliminated entirely in 2024. Meanwhile, it would establish a new kind of “food store” license for beer and wine, to be doled out at the municipal level. There would be no cap for those, but Durand notes that town officials could also decide that they don’t want to issue any. The ballot question would also establish more rules for age verification at the checkout counter.
Durand says he is open to a compromise, one that could be reached and blessed by the Legislature before the issue goes to the ballot next year. He doesn’t think anyone would want another bloody campaign, as in 2006, although his company is prepared to go all the way if necessary.
Overnight, this big surprise rearranged the Massachusetts Package Stores Association’s legislative agenda, becoming Priority No. 1. Rob Mellion, the group’s executive director, says he quickly dusted off the 2011 agreement to review it. Yes, the Cumby’s measure would bring more choice for consumers. But Mellion predicts it would destabilize the marketplace, as bigger players use their buying power to muscle out mom-and-pops in the package store industry. His group is preparing for a fight.
Other players aren’t yet sure what they’ll do. Bill Kelley, head of the Beer Distributors of Massachusetts, says his group will probably decide how to proceed in the next several weeks; the wholesalers helped bankroll the successful opposition in 2006. New England’s main convenience store trade group also hasn’t taken a position yet, nor has the Massachusetts Food Association.
Neither has the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. But its president, Jon Hurst, knows one thing: Just gathering enough signatures to get on the ballot — more than 90,000, in two phases — could cost a cool half-million.
Winning at the polls? That will be a far more expensive proposition, as anyone who survived the first Booze Ballot Battle will tell you.