Liquor store owners and grocery chains — once bitter rivals in a ballot fight over expanded alcohol sales — have come together to support a bill that would allow supermarket chains to sell beer and wine at some stores.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, would allow chains to sell beer and wine at five stores in 2012; the current limit is three. That number would be raised to seven in 2016 and nine in 2020. While the bill would allow a business to expand with more alcohol licenses, it wouldn't increase the total alcohol licenses available.
"The compromise allows for a modest increase in the number of supermarkets to sell alcohol, while ensuring that a vibrant package-store industry will continue for the next decade," said Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, House chairman of the joint committee that last week recommended the bill.
"This will mean stability for the industry and the 20,000 people working in local package stores," Speliotis said.
The Massachusetts Package Store Association, the Beer Distributors of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Food Association have all endorsed the legislation. The three groups were opponents in a costly ballot initiative battle in 2006 when the Food Association attempted to expand the number of alcohol licenses grocery store chains could hold.
The liquor store owners won the 2006 vote, after spending millions of dollars on political ads that cited law enforcement officials' opposition to the initiative because it could lead to an increase in underage drinking and drunken driving.
The compromise follows the filing of a similar ballot initiative by the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents grocery stores. The association agreed to stop collecting signatures, provided the bill is passed by the Legislature.
According to Chris Flynn, the Food Association's president, the liquor stores "got to avoid the costly ballot battle and the possibility of it passing, and we agreed that instead of getting a separate type of license we would work under the old system, which keeps liquor license values intact."
Kirk Ofiesh, the owner of Loring Liquors in Salem, said that while he opposes the bill, he doesn't think that much will change if it passes.
"It makes it tough for the small guys, that's my only concern," Ofiesh said. "I think Salem is pretty well saturated right now. The competition is stiff, and customers are already getting box-store prices."
John Stasiowski, president of the Beer Distributors of Massachusetts, said that unlike the initiative in 2006, which would have created a new type of license for grocery stores, Rodrigues' bill would protect package stores from the inevitable expansion of alcohol licenses.
"It could (hurt small businesses)," he said, "but by using the current license and quota system, a package store at least can have the option to sell its license, which can be a good chunk of change."
Both sides said they wanted to avoid the costs of running another ballot initiative campaign.
The bill would cover both liquor and beer and wine licenses. The type of license granted would remain up to the local officials, according to Flynn.