It's time to lift the antiquated liquor license cap

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From The Beacon, June 2014

Over the past 50 years, our economy, society and culture have become more diverse, varied and complex. Alvin Toffler, the author of “Future Shock,” famously noted that because we are so multifaceted and intricately balanced, we must accept this simple reality: in today’s world, “one size misfits all.” In other words, there are very few easy solutions or policies that can or will work everywhere. The era of one-size-fits-all dictates, an ideal that harkens back to the industrial revolution, is behind us.

This transformation from simple agrarian economy to modern information-age complexity is true around the globe and, yes, even in Massachusetts. We have transformed from a collection of mostly farming communities into a diverse band of rural, suburban and urban environments, with differing economic histories and drivers, and more complicated interactions. In order to facilitate a smooth, orderly and beneficial transition, it naturally follows that the laws and regulations that guide and frame us should keep up with this transformation, and move away from one-size-fits-all to become more nimble, flexible and varied to accommodate our growing complexity. This is pretty obvious, but it’s a concept that is easy to embrace in the abstract and much harder to implement on the ground.

Government policy-makers are the last to adjust to even the clearest trends and changes. In part, that’s because American democracy was built this way, with a system of checks and balances that makes it hard to change the status quo until a broad consensus prevails. But, even more, it is particularly hard to implement meaningful change because frequently the process involves ceding power and authority to others. Aye, there’s the rub.

Although Massachusetts is advertised as a “home rule” state, local officials know all too well that the system is hierarchical and includes a powerful dose of one-size-fits-all micromanagement by the Commonwealth. Here is a classic case in point: Chapter 138 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which sets a one-size-fits-all formula that caps the number of liquor licenses that cities and towns can award to restaurants and bars.

The law was established during a time of pro-temperance sentiment, when the Legislature was governed by affluent businessmen who volunteered their service as lawmakers and felt comfortable establishing such moral guidelines for society. Those legislators of old had no idea that restaurants and liquor licenses would become important tools for neighborhood economic development and revitalization decades later. Or that our population would boom to more than 6 million residents. Or that we would become the higher-education capital of the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of students. Or that tourism would be a billion-dollar industry. Or that the temperance movement would fade. Or that local governments would also be transformed during this time, from small nighttime set-ups to much larger, highly professional and accountable operations.

As the brilliant Toffler predicted, this type of top-down rule-setting just doesn’t work. It is inefficient. It is ineffective. It is bad policy. It interferes with modern society and development. And it is hard to change.

The facts are clear – Chapter 138 is outdated and antiquated. Every year, dozens of city councils and boards of selectmen visit Beacon Hill in search of special legislation to grant exceptions to the statutory formula because the law misfits their communities. But the long process is a highly inefficient obstacle that delays important neighborhood development projects and adds uncertainty for business owners. The cap also has bizarre and unintended economic consequences, as the state-set limit has increased the value of already-issued licenses and has created an incentive for incumbent license-holders to block more permits in order to maintain or increase the value of their own assets.

The good news is that Gov. Deval Patrick has recognized the simple truth that when it comes to deciding whether to grant new liquor licenses, local officials know and understand the needs of their communities and neighborhoods much better than the State House ever can. The governor has proposed legislation to eliminate the state cap and allow each city and town to determine what its cap should be.

This should be a slam-dunk. Yet there is a large problem that stands in the way: the Legislature must agree to relinquish control over local liquor licenses and give this power to cities and towns. Again, there’s the rub.

The merits of the issue are clear. Boards of selectmen and city and town councils are better positioned to serve the public when it comes to awarding liquor licenses. Communities are better positioned to understand how to revitalize neighborhoods and implement economic development plans. Our 351 cities and towns have thousands of neighborhoods and countless differences. One size “misfits” all of these.

The MMA and local officials are respectfully asking our lawmakers to recognize that Toffler was speaking to Massachusetts when he talked about the need to devolve decision-making and allow for greater flexibility and variance. If we want the Bay State to transition fully into modern times, the state will need to give up a little power.

It’s time to end the state’s micromanagement of local liquor licenses. The governor’s proposal should pass this session.