Question 3 comprises with big box stores, small businesses face opposition from all angles

Photo by Alexius Horatius/Wikimedia Commons

By Molly Farrar
Boston University Statehouse Program

Massachusetts voters will face a seemingly innocuous question on Nov. 8 – to increase the number of liquor licenses from nine to 18, prohibit self-checkout for alcohol sales and change the fine system to include all sales, not just alcohol.

Each restriction has something in common – they all would mostly affect big box stores, not your local package store, said Rob Mellion, the executive director of the Massachusetts Package Store Association.

“It’s only a Walmart or big box store that wants self-checkout of alcohol,” he said. “Nobody else does.”

Mellion, who co-drafted the ballot question for his organization representing locally owned and independent liquor stores, was trying to appease the large chain stores, who aren’t communicating with the association.

“We reached out in compromise with our ballot question, (and) we give up on licenses in return for a coexistence with these large super chains that are working to put us all out of business,” Mellion said. “They just want to wipe the party membership off the face of the earth. Our only means was to go to the people.”

Question 3

Currently, retailers can have up to nine liquor licenses, and cities and communities can decide to grant additional licenses for all alcohol or just beer and wine in Massachusetts’s three tiered system.

Question 3, which would allow retailers that already have nine total alcohol beverage licenses to maintain them, looks to decrease the number to seven. Mellion’s concession to the chains like Cumberland Farms and Total Wine & More is to allow up to 18 liquor licenses, seven being full liquor licenses and the rest for just beer and wine.

Proponents of the question are much better supported financially compared to its opposition, according to the Massachusetts Office Campaign and Political Finance. As of Oct. 21, about $900,000 has been raised by the Massachusetts Package Store Association and additional individual donations, mostly by the owners of packies. 

While the OCPF has reported a total of $12.50 raised for the opposition, Massachusetts Fine Wines & Spirits, LLC, operated by the national chain Total Wines LLC, has spent just under $3 million in “independent ballot question spending” for media, handouts and TV production.

Total Wine did not respond to a request to comment. But in an email to The Boston Globe, Total Wine vice president Edward Cooper accused Question 3 proponents of trying to stifle competition.

Meghan Cimini-Jones, a board member of the package store association and one of the owners of her family’s business, Yankee Spirits based in Sturbridge, acknowledges Total Wine & More is also a family business, one with about $3 billion in revenue.

“It protects us from namely Total Wine and big box retailers that are looking for ancillary business at the expense of us, and it disrupts the liquor industry and as a whole,” she said of the motivation behind the question.

The Boston Globe reported that Total Wine’s opposition ads claim the ballot question “reduces alcohol licenses for family-owned businesses,” run by brothers David and Robert Trone. 

David Trone, whose name is attached to the millions spent on the Question 3 opposition media, is a Democratic congressman in Maryland who ran a campaign funded with $17.4 million of his own money.

Cimini-Jones said that the current regulations and proposed amendments are designed to both promote public safety, but also to protect the market. Relaxing caps on licenses for stores that don’t rely on alcohol sales, she said, is “putting small businesses like my family business in jeopardy.”

“If you just increase licenses, and increase licenses and increase licenses, you’re just cutting the pie more ways,” she said. “There’s not going to be more people consuming alcohol, it’s just going to be putting more people out of business.”

Food Store Licenses

Question 3 reflects a 2020 attempt by retail giant Cumberland Farms to get their own question on the ballot, one which would rid Massachusetts of the cap of beer and wine licenses. The question did not garner enough support to make it on the ballot, but in a statement, Cumberland Farms said their focus still remains on a new “framework.” 

“So, to us, the fate of Question 3 is beside the point,” the statement said. “Pass or fail, local authorities will continue to have their hands tied by prohibition-era restrictions that prevent the vast majority of our Massachusetts stores from selling beer and wine.”

Cumberland Farms was joined by Walmart and Amazon in lobbying for legislation to adopt a new type of license, called a food store license. This would bypass the cap and allow large retailers to sell beer and wine uninhibited.

The bill was sent to a study committee, effectively killing it for the session.

Cumberland Farms said that the caps are “archaic,” and reforming the three-tier system in Massachusetts is their priority in the next legislative session.

“Other states have done it well, and Massachusetts consumers overwhelmingly support it,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, Question 3 simply doesn’t address it.”

Cumberland Farms may be focusing its efforts on the House, but Mellion hopes Question 3 will hold off other box stores and the bills that could be garnering support in the Legislature.

“With the threat of Cumberland Farms doing another ballot question attempt, along with the 168 bills that were filed this legislative session,” Mellion said, “one way or another we were going to be facing the potential of expanded licenses.”

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