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Path to ballot cleared for question on beer, wine sales

Massachusetts voters will get their say on a ballot question that would expand the ability of convenience stores to sell beer and wine, thanks to a May 26 decision by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court.

Package store owners had mounted a legal challenge to the state attorney general’s certification of the question for the ballot, arguing that the measure was not in compliance with the requirement that an initiative petition “contain only subjects … which are related or which are mutually dependent,” and also that it improperly included a “specific appropriation.”

But the SJC rejected both arguments.

The ballot question proposes the creation of a new type of license, known as a “food store license,” allowing the sale, for consumption off the premises, of wine and malt beverages by retail food stores.

Under M.G.L.c. 138, §15, as it currently stands, no one person, corporation or other entity may hold more than nine off-premises licenses, but the new food store licenses would be subject neither to existing local quotas for off-premises licenses nor to the per-entity limit.

The ballot question, if passed, would also amend §15 to gradually increase, and eventually eliminate, the per-entity limit on off-premises licenses.

One of the amicus briefs in the case came from Cumberland Farms, Inc., and New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, which would be among the primary beneficiaries of the new law, if voters approve it.

The ballot question also proposes a new requirement that all off-premises retailers, whether food stores or package stores, demand certain forms of identification as proof of age for any sale. Eventually, off-premises retailers would be required to check identification using a barcode scanner or “such other comparable technology as may be approved by the [Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission].”

The ballot question also provides for additional resources for the enforcement of the laws concerning alcoholic beverages, proposing the creation of a separate fund consisting of money required to be paid into the state treasury under M.G.L.c. 138, §§27 and 62, which would then allow the ABCC to hire at least one investigator for every 250 off-premises retail licenses granted under §15 or §15D.

The SJC concluded that those various provisions were sufficiently related that they could be included in the same ballot question.

The age-verification and enforcement provisions are “operationally related to the other provisions of the measure,” and the court was persuaded that the petition “sets forth a unified statement of policy and is sufficiently coherent to permit a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote,” the decision found.

The court likened the question to the detailed-yet-interrelated provisions contained within the ballot question that opened the door to recreational marijuana sales in the state.

As for the idea that the ballot question improperly usurps the Legislature’s authority to expend public funds, the court found that the ballot question included the key words, “subject to appropriation,” to exclude any possibility that the initiative is an impermissible “specific appropriation.”

The 19-page ruling is Weiner, et al. v. Attorney General, et al.

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