The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that voters this fall will get to decide whether to give all food stores the right to get a license to sell beer and wine, through a ballot question proposed by convenience-store giant Cumberland Farms, which has the maximum seven licenses allowed by current state law.
The proposal would eliminate the current limits on how many beer-and-wine licenses each city and town can issue, at least for food stores and - crucial to Cumberland Farms - eliminate the total number of beer-and-wine licenses any one person or company can own, as well as increase the total number of licenses one could own to sell hard liquor. It would also mandate the use of computerized license scanners to try to keep kiddies from buying booze and would create a fund to be used by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission to enforce the new measure, specifically to hire at least one investigator for every 250 of the new licenses cumulatively approved by cities and towns.
After state Attorney General Maura Healey certified the question was acceptable under the state constitution, the Massachusetts Package Stores Association sued, arguing the question was, in fact, unconstitutional, because it contained too many unrelated conditions and would violate a constitutional clause that prohibits voters from appropriating specific sums of money.
After filing the suit, the package-store association wrote:
Cumberland Farms currently has 7 licenses, which is the same amount that all other chains are allowed. Cumberland Farms introduced its ballot question to circumvent the legislative process by confusing voters into giving this single company unprecedented control of the retail alcohol marketplace with a potential 200-store network. Cumberland Farms’ objectives are accomplished by the provisions within the Cumberland Farms Initiative that immediately create a new unlimited food store alcohol license classification outside the existing Massachusetts system, while also removing the cap on how many stores a licensee can own. In 2024, Cumberland Farms would allow their competition to catch up by eventually terminating the entire statewide and local limits on sole control over Section 15 licenses. Establishing a virtual monopoly for Cumberland Farms is clearly the intended outcome.
But the state's highest court completely rejected the packies' case, saying that four of the parts of the ballot question were very much related to each other, agreeing with Healey that they would play a specific role in "the lifting of restrictions on the number and allocation of licenses for the retail sale of alcoholic beverages to be consumed off the premises."
The court acknowledged that creating new requirements for checking IDs and a new fund for hiring inspectors were not directly connected to the question of lifting restrictions on the number of alcohol licenses in the state, but said they were still valid for inclusion because they deal with "a potential consequence" of that action, and so were valid for inclusion in the question - similar to measures in the ballot question voters approved to legalize recreational marijuana.
One might reasonably be concerned that granting retail licenses to food stores, a class of business having less experience than existing package stores in the sale of alcoholic beverages, would result in more unlawful purchases of alcohol by underage persons. Requiring age verification before every such purchase might mitigate this danger. Similarly, the expansion of available off-premises licenses would likely necessitate greater enforcement efforts by the commission, requiring additional resources as provided in section 8 of Initiative Petition 19-14. The age-verification and enforcement provisions are thus operationally related to the other provisions of the measure. We are persuaded that Initiative Petition 19-14 sets forth a unified statement of policy and is sufficiently coherent to permit a "yes" or "no" vote.
The court also rejected the argument that the measure's proposed creation of a new state fund to hire investigators violates a constitutional requirement that ballot questions not include specific appropriations, because that's the legislature's job to figure out. The measure doesn't set a specific amount of money to be used for enforcing the new law, and, in any case, conditions that by saying actual money for the fund "would be subject to appropriation" by the legislature.