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City councilors back Walsh in rift over liquor licenses

Boston city councilors are joining with Mayor Martin J. Walsh to push for full control over the city’s liquor licenses, opening an unusual public rift with local legislators.

Twelve councilors joined with two state lawmakers petitioning a conference committee deliberating this weekend over economic development legislation. The Senate version of the bill includes language that would include Boston in unfettering cities and towns from having to receive approval from Beacon Hill to add new liquor licenses.

“I don’t understand why anyone who represents Boston would argue against that,” said at-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who organized the city council push.

But several members of Boston’s State House delegation oppose an amendment that would allow Boston, specifically, to authorize its own liquor licenses, arguing that state lawmakers have an important role to play in the approval process. The disagreement touched off a new round of a long-running feud between Walsh and Brighton state Representative Michael J. Moran, a top deputy to House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

In the new letter, dated Friday, proponents of full municipal control wrote, “We still see limitations with the current state statute. Due to the historical disenfranchisement of some neighborhoods, more intentional efforts are underway to build a pipeline of restaurateurs. This is happening and takes time. Under the current State statute, the Boston Licensing Board issues licenses on a first-come-first-served basis. It has led to having to choose one neighborhood over another.”

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The debate, which boils down to a power struggle between the state and city, spiced interactions among Boston Democrats as they gathered in Philadelphia last week for the Democratic National Convention. Such divisions on policy matters between elected officials who represent overlapping districts are unusual, and often energetically avoided because they create political awkwardness.

Moran said lawmakers have served as a check on their municipal counterparts’ efforts to blanket the city with liquor licenses and push back closing hours.

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“I can’t understand how any local elected official would support 150 new liquor licenses and 24-hour or 4 o’clock last calls in our neighborhoods, which is what they’ve supported in the past,” he said. “That to me runs directly against the quality of life for our constituents.”

The state’s two-year legislative session ends Sunday night.

Walsh and city councilors argue that the century-old practice of Beacon Hill approving licenses individually, a relic of the Brahmins’ grasp of the Legislature as Irish-Americans were gaining control of City Hall, impedes economic development.

But Moran and 13 other state lawmakers counter that Boston differs from small towns, with neighborhoods that have “their own special charms and traditions.” In a letter last week, they said that the legislative hurdle “allows the citizens in those neighborhoods through their elected officials a voice in determining if additional licenses are desirable.”

The Senate adopted a change earlier this month as an amendment to Governor Charlie Baker’s “municipal modernization” package, which had earlier passed the House without the license language. Proposed by Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat, the measure passed on “voice vote,” meaning no members had to go on the record either for or against it.

The state pushed back two years ago against the city’s effort to extend closing times until 4 a.m. for some establishments and to remove the cap on licenses citywide, instead allowing an increase in the total number of licenses issued and giving Walsh full control of the Boston Licensing Board.

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On Saturday, Pressley said that greater authority for City Hall would allow Boston to curb income inequality and boosts its global image.

“We can’t be a world-class city without a world-class dining scene, because the reality is people are making deals not around conference tables, but around restaurant tables,” she said, adding, “Given the role that we play in the economy for this Commonwealth, this is just long overdue.”


Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.