Senator cautions lawmakers about liquor license bills

By 
Michael Norton, State House News Service
Mar. 12, 2009

During an introductory meeting usually set aside for adoption of procedural rules and informal pleasantries, Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Co-chairman Sen. Michael Morrissey on Tuesday volunteered cautionary advice.

"Whatever Dianne did, don't do," Morrissey told the five other lawmakers who showed up for the 17-member committee's first meeting of the 2009-2010 session.

The Quincy Democrat was referring to former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, the Boston Democrat who resigned late last year while facing federal corruption and bribery charges, to which she has pled not guilty. Prosecutors say Wilkerson accepted more than $20,000 in payments tied to efforts to obtain a liquor license for a proposed nightclub in Roxbury, efforts that allegedly involved her pressuring city and state officials.

Morrissey, referencing the Wilkerson case, said he'd faced a grand jury because he attended a meeting regarding Boston liquor licenses and cautioned lawmakers that they should ask lots of questions to ensure license transactions are arms length and don't come with extra financial strings attached. If a public official is taking money from a developer in connection with a license, he told committee members, "There's no way to protect yourself from that."

After advancing 46 of 54 requests last session, Morrissey said committee members will continue to field requests for additional liquor licenses this session, Such requests arrive when communities have run up against their population-based license quotas. He encouraged lawmakers to make sure their hometowns vet requests and send proposals to the Hill that specify anticipated recipients and locations of the proposed alcoholic beverage licenses.

According to the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC), which must approve the granting of licenses allowed by a city or town, there are about 10,000 annual retail pouring or package store licenses in Massachusetts, and 2,000 more seasonal retail pouring or package store licenses. There are 14 dry towns.

The valuable licenses may not be directly sold. They are often transferred when holding corporations change hands. Morrissey speculated existing licenses may be freed up as restaurants falter and change hands in a struggling economy.

As part of a larger bill Gov. Deval Patrick calls his municipal partnership act, the governor has proposed allowing the legislative bodies of each city or town to determine the number of alcoholic beverage licenses, which are currently capped under state law, requiring communities seeking additional licenses to get Beacon Hill approval.

Morrissey said the governor's plan could hurt restaurants, bars and business owners that currently hold licenses by potentially expanding, by a significant amount in some cases, the number of licenses available locally. He also said he hasn't heard cities and towns clamoring for the powers Patrick has proposed.

"It could have a real adverse impact on local business owners," Morrissey said.