BOSTON — Liquor store owners are turning to the state's high court to derail a possible ballot question reshaping the state's liquor license landscape and allowing Cumberland Farms and other food stores to sell beer and wine, a practice that's common in other states.
Represented by former Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy, the Westborough-based Massachusetts Package Stores Association claims that Attorney General Maura Healey improperly certified the proposed initiative petition. They have appealed her decision to the SJC in an attempt to keep the question off the 2020 ballot.
The plaintiffs, including Sav-Mor Spirits, Julio's Liquors, and Greenwood Wine & Spirits, say the "Frankenstein-like ballot initiative" backed by the Westborough-based Cumberland Farms convenience store chain is impermissible because it contains four independent and unrelated questions, similar to the argument that last year sunk the attempt to put a surtax on income greater than $1 million.
The questions are whether beer and wine should be sold at an unlimited number of establishments that sell food, whether any single company should be allowed to control an unlimited number of liquor licenses, whether all people buying beer or wine should be made to present identification, and whether some alcohol excise taxes should be diverted to fund the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.
"Voters are immediately misled because the question addresses four independent questions of long-standing public policy, each unrelated to the other, except that they all reference alcoholic beverages," the association wrote in a press release. It added, "This 'logrolling,' including unrelated provisions in a single ballot question, appears to be an intentional effort by Cumberland Farms, owned by England based E.G. Group who controls over 7000 convenience and gas stores worldwide."
Matt Durand, the lead petitioner for the question and the head of public policy for Cumberland Farms, said Healey's office "squarely addressed the issues raised in the recent Package Store Association lawsuit" when it certified that the initiative met constitutional muster and could continue advancing towards the ballot.
"While the opponents' continued objections lack merit in our view, they are hardly a surprise. We fully anticipated that entrenched special interests would challenge this proposal at every step of the process, and that's exactly what they're doing with their lawsuit challenging the Attorney General's certification," Durand said. "We are in the process of reviewing the specifics of the complaint, and will determine the appropriate response. For now, while the Package Store Association argues about process, we remain focused on the merits of our proposal as we complete the signature certification process."
To stay on track for the ballot, supporters of the proposed law must submit signatures from 80,239 registered voters by Dec. 4. Durand said the effort has gathered 130,000 signatures since August and has "already comfortably exceeded the constitutional threshold for certification by local election officials -- with many more certifications still to go."
Eliminating the license limit
Under current law, Cumberland Farms and similar retailers can hold up to seven alcohol retail licenses this year and up to nine beginning next year.
The initiative, as described in the attorney general's summary, "would create a license allowing food stores to sell wine and beer for off-premises consumption, progressively increase and then eliminate the limit on the number of licenses for the sale of alcoholic beverages consumed off-premises that any one retailer could own or control."
The package stores said the ballot question is an attempt to go around the legislative process "by confusing voters into giving this single company unprecedented control of the retail alcohol marketplace with a potential 200-store network."
"Establishing a virtual monopoly for Cumberland Farms is clearly the intended outcome," the association said.
The proposal would also "require food stores and other retailers selling alcohol for consumption off-premises to implement certain age-verification policies to prevent the sale of alcohol to customers under age 21," according to the attorney general's summary.
The package stores, who said they account for more than 19,000 jobs and $90 million in state excise taxes, said the industry is banding together to fight the Cumberland Farms initiative because it "never should have gotten this far."
"The entire retail alcohol beverages industry in Massachusetts has been turned upside down by the Cumberland Farms Initiative," Benjamin Weiner of Sav-Mor Spirits said in a statement. "This appeal is a Strength in Unity moment for all locally owned retailers of beer, wine and spirits against a retail Goliath from the UK that is trying to dupe voters into giving them unparalleled control of the Massachusetts marketplace."