It may be just a glass of wine or a craft cocktail after work to most folks, but the politics of booze is a big deal on Beacon Hill — and this year will be no exception.
Days into the new legislative session, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced he’s looking for 184 new liquor licenses as a key economic development tool for the city’s many underserved neighborhoods. Boston won’t be alone. Before the year is out, dozens of communities will be looking for similar relief from the state’s insanely prescriptive 1933 law regulating the sale of alcohol at the local level. And, yes, that was the year Prohibition ended. (Some towns are exempt from state oversight, including just-across-the-river Cambridge. Go figure.)
Other communities will have to go hat in hand to the Legislature begging for a license or two or six to keep up with local demand. One would think lawmakers have more important matters to debate — like, oh, fixing the education funding formula or finding more revenue for the T — but no, instead they’re fielding liquor license requests.
A little over a year ago a task force appointed by state Treasurer Deb Goldberg — the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission comes under her office — reported, “Given the number of cities and towns filing legislation seeking more licenses . . . it appears that the 1933 density formula no longer makes sense.”
The task force also noted that the home rule requests “are almost always successful,” which raises this question: Why not end the legislative rigamarole and bring the state’s licensing system into the 21st century? But even the task force made no final recommendation on the issue, and not surprisingly its report now rests in the graveyard of good intentions.
Boston has always paid the price for being the capital city — and for being, back in 1933, a largely Irish city presided over by a Yankee State House establishment. Boston is the only municipality with a state-imposed cap on the number of liquor licenses; it wasn’t until 2006 that Boston was allowed to exceed its 1933 cap. The number of active liquor licenses in Boston currently stands at 1,188 — 812 for all alcohol and 376 for wine and beer only.
The current Walsh bill, which awaits City Council approval before moving to Beacon Hill, seeks 184 nontransferable licenses to be allocated over three years. Most of those would be designated for neighborhoods where the administration hopes they will help jump-start further economic development — Dorchester, East Boston, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Mission Hill, Roxbury, Roslindale, and Charlestown.
Making them nontransferable means a restaurant will only be able to lease the license from the city — at a bargain price (currently $3,500 for all alcohol and $1,900 for beer and wine) — but not resell it, a practice the city began for just these new licenses several years ago. (Transferable licenses sold as a business asset on the open market can fetch up to several hundred thousand dollars.)
The city is also looking to create “umbrella licenses” for large-scale developments (at least 700,000 square feet, including at least 125,000 square feet of commercial space) — South Bay and Seaport Square, for example — for which the city would charge $150,000 a year. It’s both a clever way to create an ongoing source of revenue and to serve new areas of dense population growth.
What the city is mostly looking for on this — and in other economic development proposals, such as its efforts to increase linkage payments — is flexibility from a Legislature not given to relinquishing its ability to micromanage.
“We’re trying to be practical about our ‘ask,’ ” said Boston’s economic development chief, John Barros.
But it’s time the capital city and its licensing officials were treated like grownups. Prohibition is long over, Brahmins have been routed from the State House, and yet Massachusetts remains in the grip of a law that has outlived its usefulness.
If liquor licensing is indeed a tool of economic development — and it is — by all means allow Boston to put its plan in motion. But lawmakers should realize this law needs a bigger fix.