By Jazmine Ramos, Annalise Freimarck, Ramsey Khalifeh
Boston University News Service
Massachusetts’ latest midterm election asked voters — other than deciding who the next governor and state and city representatives would be — four ballot questions. All but one passed, and that was the bill that would restructure current liquor license laws in a defensive measure for small businesses.
A yes vote on question three would have increased beer and wine licenses, decreased all spirits licenses, banned self-checkout for alcohol, and allowed vendors to accept out-of-state licenses to purchase alcohol.
According to the Boston Globe, 55.3% — 1,287,211 people — voted no. There was a 10-point difference, with 1,041,949 people that voted yes.
The question, to some, seemed confusing and unclear. Commenters on social media and an article in the Boston Globe covering the aftermath of the failed bill generally said that they did not understand what they were reading when voting.
Robert Mellion, the co-drafter of question three and executive general counsel to the Massachusetts Package Stores Association (MassPack), acknowledged that voters were misinformed about the bill. He attributes this partially to Total Wine, a major liquor store corporation based in Maryland, who injected $3 million into opposition funding just two weeks before the election.
According to Mellion, the money that Total Wine spent went towards anti-question three advertising that spread misinformation and further confusion to what the bill had to offer. Mellion also believed that most voters were, and remain, unaware of the current state laws for bill funding and corporate lobbying.
“There needs to be a review of the process for ballot questions,” Mellion said. “We’re not the first group to say that.”
Yet for Mellion, the failed bill is not a loss in his books. Much of Total Wine’s advertising painted the picture that question three would hurt small businesses. He says that isn’t the case, so when polling those who voted “no” on the bill, most were actually on the side of MassPack.
“So we’re encouraged by what we saw, even though it wasn’t the result we wanted, we’re encouraged,” Mellion said. “We’re preparing as a result of that, for what we think is going to be a very active legislative session.”
Before this bill came about, Mellion and his team at MassPack had to deal with over 100 bills in the state house that would’ve challenged existing liquor license laws and made the number of licenses a business could obtain limitless.
Mellion has described this battle over the past three years as the fight between David and Goliath.
“There were six bills that raised the excise taxes for the state. We stopped all of those. There were the three bills that expanded licenses. We stopped all of those. There were about 17 bills that created different types of business schemes that were beneficial to large corporate interests. We stopped all of those,” Mellion said.
The differences, in Mellion’s view, between the two groups in this battle are that MassPack represents the small business people on the ground in Massachusetts, and that other corporations have no involvement at all.
“Our members reside in the communities that actually serve the alcohol,” Mellions said. “They’re the ones who are locally engaged.”
So what comes next for MassPack and the future of liquor laws in Massachusetts? For now, the laws remain the same, but when the next legislative session begins at the beginning of 2023, anything could be entertained in the statehouse.
The timeline of events in the upcoming legislation is as follows, according to Mellion’s predictions: The legislature will first convene in January of 2023. Filings will begin to take place in February, and at that point, the bills that are submitted will go to different committees in the statehouse. Hearings for those bills would then start in the late spring and continue through 2024.
In short, this means that any contention to the current laws that may be introduced by big supermarket or liquor store corporations will take some time before they could potentially become law.
Mellion and his team will be there every step of the way to fight against these bills, continuing their battle in this David vs. Goliath fight.