Senate passes municipal reform bill; differs with House over alcohol licensing

One of the pieces of legislation Gov. Charlie Baker tapped as among his priority bills for the waning days of formal sessions -- a package of municipal government and finance reforms -- inched closer to his desk after clearing the Senate Wednesday evening with the inclusion of language redefining how liquor licenses are issued.

The liquor license language was not included in the House version of the legislation (H 4419), putting the two bills on track for a conference committee where six lawmakers will need to iron out differences, drawing features from the House and Senate bills.

The version that cleared the Senate 40-0 contains over 200 sections, many of which update laws "to reflect current practice," Sen. Barbara L'Italien said during debate on the bill (S 2410).

"Suffice it to say that we are trying to make the jobs of our cities and towns easier, to be able to do the work that they do," said L'Italien, an Andover Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government.

Originally filed by Baker, the bill changes procurement laws, repeals county government finance reporting requirements, allows the electronic issuance of motor vehicle citations and lets municipalities enter joint-powers agreements to provide regional services, among other provisions.

The initial bill Baker filed sought to allow municipalities, except Boston, to set the quotas for liquor licenses issued to restaurants, bars and other facilities that allow on-premises drinking.

The bill that passed the House was silent on the issue of liquor licenses, but the version put forth by the Senate Ways and Means Committee mirrored Baker's proposal to increase local authority over the number of licenses.

Under current law, communities that reach their liquor license quota must petition the Legislature for additional licenses. Lawmakers frequently pass bills authorizing the extra licenses, including one last week (H 4184) that would allow 65 new licenses in Somerville.

By adopting an amendment from Dorchester Democrat Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, the Senate rewrote the liquor license section of its bill. It now says, "A city or town shall determine the number of all alcoholic beverages and wines and malt beverage licenses to be issued by its local licensing authority," no longer containing a restriction on the city of Boston.

Forry's amendment was adopted around 6:45 p.m. without debate on a voice vote.

Speaking in support of a rejected amendment that would have removed the liquor license sections from the bill, Sen. Patrick O'Connor said he believed lifting the quota system could hurt existing businesses by driving down the value of liquor licenses.

"It's my opinion that a lot of liquor license holders currently in Massachusetts have no idea that their businesses may be at risk right now with language in this bill," the Weymouth Republican said. "I believe the liquor license quota system was created -- definitely was created -- by the government, and it inflated values, and now the government wants to break up a system that they created, they built up, and they allowed to gain value."

Sen. Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat, sponsored an amendment that would have allowed municipalities to charge for liquor licenses, which was also rejected.

Baker on Monday named the municipal modernization bill as one of the "big six" items remaining before formal sessions end for the year on July 31, along with energy, economic development and pay equity legislation and bills regulating the ride-for-hire industry and restricting non-compete agreements between employers and employees.