Liquor bill reform hits bump, but it’s still in play

Lauren Dezenski, Reporter Staff
Jul. 2, 2014

Despite a hiccup on Beacon Hill over the weekend, Boston’s quest for control over its liquor licenses and the setting of late-night hours at bars and restaurants along late-night T routes could soon succeed as legislative maneuvering continued this week in the Senate and the House.

The hiccup was the failure of an enabling amendment offered by state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry to make it into the Senate’s final version of the budget. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, City Councillor Ayanna Pressley, and Dorcena Forry, who is married to Reporter editor Bill Forry, have been leading the charge to have authority over alcohol permitting transferred from the state to the city’s Licensing Board in the expectation the permits would serve as an economic driver for struggling neighborhoods.

Then, on Tuesday evening, the Senate adopted amendments tied to the economic development bill – and to state Rep. Russell Holmes’s similar legislation in the House – that would for the first time in more than 100 years give Boston control of liquor licenses for its bars and restaurants and also give licensed establishments the opportunity to stay open later in cities and towns touched by late-night T service.

The bill would also authorize the roll-out of 150 new liquor licenses in Boston over the next three years. The number of licenses in the city is currently set at 1,030 by a state law that ties the total to population data.

“In response to a clarion call for relief from the present log-jam of available beer and wine and full liquor licenses across the city of Boston,” half of the licenses will be kept within neighborhoods, said Sen. Thomas P. Kennedy, the Brockton Democrat who introduced the amendments, in addressing the Senate on Tuesday. The remaining 75 licenses will be distributed throughout the city, he added.

Walsh praised the legislative moves, calling the amendments more in line with the city’s current needs. “The option of having additional liquor licenses is a great asset for Boston’s future economic development,” he said, “ and is essential for the success of our bars and restaurants. That, combined with local control over our liquor licensing board, is a huge step forward.”

In the House, Holmes’s bill has until next Tuesday (July 8) to be reported out of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. “There’s certainly a lot of interest in the bill now that there’s a similar effort underway in the Senate,” said Peter Antonellis, chief of staff for the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. Should the Holmes bill make it out of committee, its differences with the Kennedy amendments will be ironed out before it is sent to the governor’s desk.

A neighborhood’s number of liquor licenses is an issue of access and equality, state Rep. Daniel Cullinane of Dorchester and Mattapan said on Tuesday. Mattapan has fewer than 10 liquor licenses, compared to other neighborhoods such as the North End and Allston/Brighton, where licenses are much greater in number. Cullinane cited Mattapan’s main business district, which shuts down around 6 p.m., leaving anyone wanting to spend time and money at a restaurant or bar to look outside of the neighborhood. “This legislation has the ability to change that,” he said. “If the intent is to bring investment and jobs to area, we have to do everything in our power to ensure it’s lasting.”

The matter of homogenizing liquor license access across the city was an issue during last year’s mayoral campaign and has been an ongoing concern for Pressley over the last three years. “There are a lot of moving pieces in the legislature,” Pressley said on Monday. “There are many avenues for passage. We continue to work collaboratively with mayor’s team, committee members, and others to push for meaningful Boston liquor license reform in this session.”

State Rep. Dan Hunt of Dorchester predicted on Monday that a stand-alone bill could materialize before the legislative session wraps at the end of July. But if blow-back continued over noise and safety concerns in neighborhoods affected by late-night liquor licenses, Hunt said, it’s possible the Legislature could double-down on license changes to a specific area like the South Boston waterfront. “If there’s a place to put it, it’d be there, where the new hotels are going and there’s a big market for those late-night options,” he said.

“The current way we’re doing business is not optimal,” Pressley said. “The way to address that is to return control to the city of Boston.”

Information from State House News Service was used in this report.