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January 23, 2024

Healey opts to not file liquor license reform bill

Photo | Courtesy of Commonwealth of Massachusetts Massachusetts State House

Three days after announcing a push to give cities and towns more control over how many liquor licenses they issue, Gov. Maura Healey opted against actually putting the idea before lawmakers despite it winning support from the top Senate Democrat.

The first-term executive team described alcohol licensing reform as one of several key features in a wide-ranging "Municipal Empowerment Act" they rolled out Friday, pitching it as a way to remove the existing hurdle of securing state approval.

"Right now, we know if you're at your quota, you've got to go to the State House. That can be difficult if you want to invest in a downtown," Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll said at the Massachusetts Municipal Association's annual meeting Friday. "This has been filed in the past, and this is an area that we know is important to local leaders."

The governor's office highlighted the idea in a press release, saying the bill to be filed Monday would "unlock new opportunities for small and minority- and women-owned [businesses] by empowering local governments to set their own liquor license quotas and bypass the existing home rule petition process."

But the bill Healey filed Monday does not move to redirect power over liquor license caps from the state to municipalities.

Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand told reporters the administration "continue[s] to support the concept and will continue to work with stakeholders." Asked if there had been pushback against the idea, Hand replied, "That's all I've got."

"We decided we want more time to work on the language," she said when asked if the governor still planned to pursue the liquor license reform in a future bill.

Healey met privately with House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka on Monday before she officially filed her bill, and it did not become clear until after the trio spoke with reporters that Healey would no longer include the liquor license reform in her legislation.

When one reporter asked Mariano if he would be open to ceding the Legislature's control over liquor licenses, Healey interjected.

"I just want to be clear, in fairness to the speaker and to the Senate president, I think we're filing the bill right now. So ... might want to take a look at that first. Certainly, I understand everyone needs to look at it as we evaluate things," Healey said. 

Healey made no mention of what her press secretary would soon after inform reporters: that the bill would not propose liquor license reforms after all.

Less than a minute later, Spilka declared her support for the idea that did not ultimately feature in Healey's bill.

"I do have to say, with the liquor licenses, honestly, I never understood why the Legislature approves them to begin with. So I would certainly be willing to take a look at that and make some changes," she said.

Mariano did not weigh in on the topic Monday, but his top deputy signaled skepticism Friday when Healey first floated the idea. House Majority Leader Michael Moran told the Boston Globe he has concerns about giving the mayor of Boston -- whom he supports -- too much power over liquor licenses.

"There's a reason we have these checks and balances in the government," Moran, a Brighton Democrat, told the Globe.

Under current law, cities and towns that want to issue more liquor licenses need to secure the state's blessing by filing a home rule petition, getting it passed through both branches and signed by the governor.

Some municipal leaders have argued the existing system poses unnecessary obstacles and handcuffs local decision-making to the whims of legislative leaders.

In October, when Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and city councilors asked the Legislature to gradually add 250 liquor licenses in certain Boston neighborhoods, they warned that an existing scarcity of licenses and the high price of acquiring one had widened the racial wealth gap and concentrated businesses in wealthier parts of the city.

"We are, I believe, in such dire need of licenses across the board that we very well may be coming back to you in the future as we see where things go," Wu said at an Oct. 3 legislative hearing.

The bill Healey filed Monday still pursues the bevy of other reforms she outlined at the MMA meeting, including new local-option taxes she said would help cities and towns generate the revenue they need plus permanent authorization for popular pandemic-era outdoor dining and cocktails to go.

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