Decision Time Nearing On To-Go Cocktails

Critics Say Healey Plans May Shut People Out Of Public Meetings

FEB. 27, 2024…..Gov. Maura Healey’s push to overhaul local procurement procedures, rethink post-employment benefits and make permanent some pandemic-era policies won over many city and town leaders, but points of friction in her bill could create some tricky deliberations for the Legislature.

And that’s before lawmakers even begin to consider whether to clear the way for higher local taxes.

The non-revenue portions of Healey’s “Municipal Empowerment Act” emerged for their first public hearing Tuesday, where the industry group representing package stores signaled it’s ready to “beg” lawmakers to end the authorization for takeaway drinks and a coalition of other organizations argued the bill as drafted will “shut people out of the democratic process.”

Among its many provisions, Healey’s 45-page bill would permanently enshrine a pandemic-era policy allowing many bars and restaurants to sell beer, wine and cocktails to go. 

Lawmakers implemented the measure early during the COVID-19 state of emergency as a way to support establishments who lost major swaths of their business due to public health restrictions, and they have extended the policy several times since then. The policy is now to expire March 30, 2024 without additional action.

Healey’s move to make it permanent in her municipal reform bill sparked a new round of opposition from package store owners who have been pushing to bring to-go cocktails to an end.

Rob Mellion, executive director of the Mass. Package Store Association, told lawmakers that the proposal “is about profit for a few at the expense of locally owned stores.”

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“Drinks to go was never intended to last longer than a couple of months. We know that because we were part of the negotiations that actually created drinks to go,” Mellion said. “Unfortunately, needlessly, it has been extended for four years, and now, due to the push by out-of-state interests — namely, Big Alcohol — it is being made permanent through this bill.”

“We pretty much beg you: please, don’t do this,” he added. “Other states are repealing it because they’re finding out the hard way what it’s doing and it is creating chaos within our industry needlessly. Again, it’s being pushed by out-of-state interests whose bottom line is benefitted by drinks to go.”

Another influential industry group, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, last year threw its support behind a proposal to keep cocktails to go an option for consumers.

Mellion alleged Tuesday that the availability of alcoholic beverages to go has led to an increase in underage drinking, calling it “hard to police.”

Committee co-chair Sen. Jacob Oliveira replied to Mellion’s testimony by noting “there are a lot of pressures that are on a lot of industries right now.”

“No offense to you guys, this is completely anecdotal, I haven’t seen a single package store in my hometown shut down, but I’ve seen restaurants shut down left and right,” Oliveira, a Ludlow Democrat, told package store owners at the hearing. “I have met with the restaurateurs. We see them. It was one of the hardest industries to actually make a profit on.”

He pledged to look through the materials Mellion and package store owners provided, then voiced his own individual experience as a consumer.

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“As someone who is going out there, why am I going to pay $14 at my restaurant to get drunk off of a cocktail when I can go to one of your establishments and, for $14, I can get a fifth of vodka or a nip or something else that can get me drunk a lot faster than paying $14 for a cosmo at a place down the road?” Oliveira said.

“We saw that it worked,” he added about cocktails to go. “It is helpful to our small businesses that are also restaurants in our districts. It has helped them out there.”

Another pandemic-era policy Healey wants to extend allows for public meetings to take place on remote platforms, something many government boards and agencies at both the state and local level embraced early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and since.

However, the exact approach she suggested drew sharp pushback Tuesday from a constellation of civil rights advocates, civic groups and press industry organizations, who said the bill would leave final discretion on meeting format to individual entities.

“It will shut people out of the democratic process by only allowing — and not requiring — municipalities to provide hybrid participation options,” the groups said in a joint statement. “Giving every government body complete discretion about how to provide public access to their meetings means people with disabilities or other reasons they can’t attend meetings will be completely shut out when city councils, select boards, or school committees decide to hold meetings exclusively in person.”

Authors urged lawmakers to guarantee hybrid access to public meetings. Organizations that signed onto the joint statement include the ACLU of Massachusetts, Boston Center for Independent Living, Disability Law Center, Common Cause Massachusetts, League of Women Voters of Mass., the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, MASSPIRG, the New England First Amendment Coalition, and the New England Newspaper and Press Association.

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The groups added that they feel Healey’s proposed remote meeting language should go before a different legislative panel, the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, because it “has substantial expertise in this area and is able to properly consider the application of the Open Meeting Law to state agencies as well as municipalities.”

Healey filed her bill last month, proposing to give cities and towns new authority to increase or impose taxes on meals, lodging and motor vehicle ownership alongside procurement reforms, the ability to create regional boards of assessors, new enforcement mechanisms for double pole prohibitions, and creation of a panel to explore health care and non-pension benefits (OPEB) paid to public sector retirees.

“It’s not always sexy, but it is really important legislation that can help us work with our communities in a more meaningful way,” Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll said Tuesday.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association trumpeted the bill as a major win, with its legislative director, Dave Koffman, calling it “an incredibly big deal” at the hearing.

Lawmakers sent the local option tax increases that generated quick blowback to the Revenue Committee — which plans to hold its own hearing on the topic Thursday — and the other policies to the Municipalities Committee.

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