When Boston gets tarred as a “city of no,” it’s because of kerfuffles like this: Because legislators won’t get out of the way, people who just want to serve food and drink to willing customers can’t get the licenses they need to run a viable business.
As state lawmakers consider a measure to let the state’s other 350 municipalities decide how many alcohol licenses to issue, Mayor Marty Walsh wants Boston’s cap lifted, too. But, as the Globe’s Jim O’Sullivan reported this week, Representative Michael Moran and a group of 13 other Boston representatives and senators signed a letter opposing the change — and defending the Legislature’s right to decide the issue.
The reasoning in the letter is goofy on its face: Boston is unique, the 14 legislators declare; unlike smaller communities with a single downtown, the state capital “is comprised of many distinct neighborhoods with their own special charms and traditions.” What the letter never explains is how lawmakers from the Cape or the Berkshires would protect those charms and traditions better than the city’s own leaders would.
Years ago, as Boston grew more and more Irish, censorious Brahmin prunes on Beacon Hill imposed a hard limit on the number of licenses in the city. Today, those licenses sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars — a prohibitive barrier for a chef who’s trying to start a new business. Here’s a shocker: In Cambridge and Somerville, where licenses have been easier to get, the restaurant scene is cheaper and better.
The other problem is that, when Boston runs out of licenses and needs to secure more, as it did most recently in 2014, it has to ask Beacon Hill for a dispensation that might or might not be forthcoming.
When I spoke with Moran, he noted that his House district has fewer constituents than a Boston city councilor’s. Representatives can therefore be closer to the neighborhoods they represent than city officials are. The current setup provides checks and balances, he says, against the power of City Hall.
But it does so by sacrificing control over Boston restaurants to officials from near and far. Committee chairs and other influential lawmakers have been known to meddle outside their own districts. Any liquor license bills affecting Boston are at the mercy of a Senate president from Amherst and House speaker from Winthrop.
Plus, giving the Legislature so much control over local licensing matters forces a would-be business owner to cozy up to an entirely different layer of government. Lawmakers get to claim credit for shepherding new licenses through the legislative process. But it’s individual business owners who suffer through the extra red tape — or are kept waiting for months or years when new licenses fail to materialize.
The Globe news story hinted that the letter on liquor licenses echoed other disagreements between the mayor and Moran, a former colleague in the Legislature. Walsh was “obviously upset” about the issue, one delegation member told O’Sullivan, “because I think he thought it was a continuation of a feud that had subsided.”
When I spoke with Moran, who’s in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention, he maintained that he and the mayor cooperate just fine. But the mere possibility that a Walsh-Moran rift could affect the number of liquor licenses in Boston underscores the basic problem: An entrepreneur’s future livelihood shouldn’t depend upon political relationships that don’t involve her and whose inner workings she cannot fathom.
Conveniently for Walsh, his proposal would increase the power of city government relative to the Legislature’s. But the mayor’s right on the merits, too. Eventually, Boston will run through its newest batch of licenses. Boston best chance of getting its license cap lifted altogether is right now — when it’s one of many municipalities bristling under existing laws, not when it’s the only city that doesn’t control its own licensing.
It’s a sign of virtue when one branch of government decides, “You know what? Our input isn’t really needed here.” Maybe the signers of Moran’s letter think they’re preserving neighborhoods’ power. In practice, they’re just defending their own.