BOSTON — Supermarkets and convenience stores would have access to more beer and wine licenses under a proposal eyed for the 2022 ballot that aims to resolve a decades-old dispute over limits on retail alcohol sales.

The proposed referendum, one of more than two dozen filed last week, calls for gradually increasing the number of beer and wine licenses a single company can own -- rising to 18 over the next decade.

But it would keep in place a cap on how many total licenses can be issued, and tighten limits on the sale of liquor and spirits.

The proposal, filed by the Massachusetts Package Store Association, also calls for tightening ID requirements for sellers and increasing penalties for businesses caught selling alcohol to minors.

If the ballot question is certified by the attorney general's office, supporters still have many hurdles to clear, the first of which would be collecting more than 80,000 signatures of registered voters by Nov. 17.

The proposal is being billed as an "olive branch" to convenience stores that have been pushing for more beer and wine licenses, which are tightly controlled by the state.

Supermarkets are allowed to apply for licenses to sell beer and wine in Massachusetts, but a single company is limited to seven licenses. The cap increased to nine this year, under a previous agreement between package stores, or "packies,” and food stores.

Cumberland Farms has argued that the cap on liquor licenses dates to the end of Prohibition and gives package stores an unfair advantage. The Westborough convenience store company has 200 locations in Massachusetts. Only seven can sell beer and wine, including the store on Route 1 in Ipswich.

If the packies' proposal makes it to the 2022 ballot, it won't be the first time voters have been asked to weigh in on the divisive issue.

In 2006, voters rejected a ballot question placed by supermarkets to lift liquor license caps to allow wine sales.

Several years later, the Massachusetts Food Association gathered signatures to put the issue on the ballot but agreed to drop the measure when the Legislature passed a law to gradually increase the number of liquor licenses that can be held by a single company.

In 2019, Cumberland Farms pursued a ballot question that called for eliminating the state cap on off-premise beer and wine licenses. It also sought to establish a new kind of license for "food stores" and give cities and towns authority to decide how many to issue.

That question faced opposition from package stores, which argued that flooding the market with big competitors would drive out mom-and-pop businesses.

Cumberland Farms opted not to pursue the question last year, citing the impact of the pandemic. It suggested it might take it up again later but didn't file a proposal by the deadline for the 2022 ballot.

Matt Durand, the company’s head of public policy, said it’s instead focused on legislation that would allow more food and convenience stores to sell beer and wine.

"Our efforts around the ballot initiative kicked off some really productive conversations, and we want to keep those conversations going," he said. "It’s clear we have overwhelming public support on this issue, and we’re equally gratified by the recent outreach from legislators and other interested stakeholders."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhinews.com.

 

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