The ballot measure offers a reasonable if imperfect compromise in the state’s long-running alcohol wars.

Shopping for a book or a cup of coffee or a six-pack can be a fraught exercise.

The chain stores beckon – so cheap and convenient. But spending too much money in a big box can feel like a betrayal of the small, mom-and-pop stores that give our neighborhoods life.

Striking a balance is key to building a healthy economy and healthy communities. And Question 3 on the Massachusetts ballot is a good if imperfect step toward striking that balance in one sector, at least: alcohol sales.

The Globe urges a yes vote on the measure.

Question 3 is the latest twist in a long-running fight between small package store owners and big food sellers over who should be able to sell alcohol and at what volume.

For many years, a single retailer could only sell alcohol at three stores in the state. And that provided the mom-and-pops with some protection against the big-box stores and grocers.

Then in 2006, the supermarket chains asked the voters for many more licenses to sell wine, arguing that it would mean more consumer choice and lower prices. The package stores and police chiefs pushed back, claiming that expanded access to alcohol would pose public safety risks. And they won.

But it was an expensive fight for both sides; at the time, it was the priciest ballot campaign in state history. And when the grocers raised the issue again five years later, the two sides worked out a compromise in the state Legislature that gradually hiked the limit from three licenses to nine.

There was peace, it seemed, in the alcohol wars.

But the convenience store chain Cumberland Farms revived the conflict in 2019, announcing plans for a ballot measure that would lift the cap on alcohol licenses for food stores. The pandemic derailed that effort, but there was a broad expectation that Cumberland would be back at it this year. And the package stores, in a defensive maneuver, came up with a compromise – what is now Question 3.

They are pushing ahead with that compromise even though the Cumberland measure never materialized, figuring that if they prevail, they can head off more food and convenience store-friendly bills in the state Legislature.

And because state rules bar a similar measure from appearing on the ballot until 2028, the package stores may be able to argue that a Cumberland Farms-sponsored measure on the same topic – even with different aims – will have to wait six years.

So what would Question 3 do, exactly?

The measure would gradually lift the cap on licenses for a person or corporation from nine to 18 for beer and wine, while lowering the cap on the more valuable all-alcohol licenses – including spirits – from nine to seven. The proposal includes a grandfather clause for any individual or firm that already holds eight or nine all-alcohol licenses.

Another provision would make out-of-state driver’s licenses acceptable ID for age verification in liquor stores (stores that accept out-of-state IDs now do so at their own risk). The measure would also bar self-checkout for alcohol sales. And it would change the formula for calculating fines for stores that sell to minors or intoxicated people so it is based on all retail sales, including food and gasoline, and not just alcohol sales.

That latter provision seems unduly harsh to grocers and convenience stores with wide selections, while it would have little impact on package stores, which derive most of their revenue from alcohol sales. It could stand some revision by the state Legislature, should the measure pass.

Overall, though, Question 3 is a good compromise. It gives chains like Trader Joe’s and BJ’s Wholesale Club a chance to sell beer and wine in more locations, in a win for consumers. But it wouldn’t blow up the caps altogether. And that means neighborhood package stores will still have a fighting chance.

Total Wine has dropped $2.1 million into an opposition campaign; apparently the company isn’t pleased with the compromise. And even if Question 3 passes, it would be naive to think that will settle the issue. The big chains have made it clear they will continue to press their case – in the Legislature and possibly at the ballot box.

And the measure is limited in one important way. It only deals with state licensing. Cities and towns can impose their own restrictions on who sells alcohol, and they will be unaffected. Any comprehensive reform will have to reckon with local power.

But comprehensive reform is not before voters now. A step in the right direction is.

Source: The Boston Globe

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