SJC ruling clears booze battle for ballot

Different brands of wine line the shelves at the Cumberland Farms on Route 1 in Ipswich. The company sells alcohol at seven of its Massachusetts stores, which is the maximum number of licenses allowed under state law. But a ballot proposal from Cumberland Farms would expand the state’s cap on off-premise beer and wine licenses.

BOSTON — The state’s highest court on Monday cleared a proposal seeking to expand retail beer and wine sales for the November ballot after rejecting a legal challenge from a convenience store chain.

A lawsuit, filed by Cumberland Farms, argues that that the ballot question is unconstitutional because it contains several “unrelated” items. Those include increasing the number of alcohol licenses, decreasing beer and wine licenses, changing the state’s age verification requirements and setting new fines.

The plaintiffs argued that Attorney General Maura Healey should not have certified the referendum and called on the Supreme Judicial Court to strike it from the Nov. 8 ballot.

But justices disagreed, writing in the 21-page ruling issued Monday that the ballot question “presents voters with an integrated scheme” that “does not require a voter to cast a single vote on dissimilar subjects.”

The referendum, filed by the Massachusetts Package Store Association, 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.

It also calls for tightening identification requirements for sellers and increasing penalties for businesses caught selling alcohol to minors.

The plan is billed as a compromise with convenience stores that are pushing for more beer and wine licenses, which are tightly controlled by the state.

Rob Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, praised the high court’s ruling and said supporters are looking forward to putting the issue before voters.

“This ballot question is about compromise, but in a manner that protects Main Street,” he said. “In the end, everyone will get something they want.”

To make the ballot, supporters must still clear a final hurdle of turning in another another 13,374 signatures from registered voters by a July 6 deadline.

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 about 200 locations in Massachusetts. Only seven can sell beer and wine.

Healey certified the ballot question, along with several initiative petitions, after a legal review of the proposed changes to state law.

To be sure, this isn’t the first time Massachusetts 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 in 2020, even after the Supreme Judicial Court rejected a challenge from package stores, citing the impact of the pandemic.

The challenge is one of several lawsuits being considered by the Supreme Judicial Court involving four referendums set for the November ballot.

The high court is also weighing legal challenges to a question that would define ride-hailing drivers as independent contractors and another challenging the wording of the ‘millionaires’ tax’ constitutional amendment. All three lawsuits ask the justices to exclude the referendums from the November ballot.

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

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