Massachusetts Question 3, Changes to Alcohol Retail Licensing Initiative (2022)

Massachusetts Question 3 was an initiative that appeared on the November 2022 ballot in Massachusetts seeking to reform the state’s alcohol retail licensing laws. The measure would have incrementally increased limits on the number of retail alcohol licenses an establishment could have over time. It also included provisions to prohibit self-checkout sales of alcohol, change how fines are calculated for underage sales violations, and add out-of-state IDs to the list of accepted identification for alcohol purchases.

Despite support from package stores and some newspaper editorial boards, Question 3 ultimately failed at the ballot box. The defeat highlighted disagreements over finding the right balance between expanding consumer convenience and protecting small liquor store owners. This article will provide an overview of what Question 3 proposed, the debate surrounding it, key players and funding on both sides, and what its failure means for the future of alcohol regulations in Massachusetts.

What Would Question 3 Have Done?

Had it been approved, Question 3 would have:

  • Incrementally increased the combined number of retail beer/wine and liquor licenses an establishment could have from the current limit of 9 to 12 in 2023, 15 in 2027, and 18 in 2031. This would have allowed retailers to expand alcohol sales to more locations over time.
  • Limited the maximum number of licenses for the sale of all alcoholic beverages to 7 per establishment, unless the retailer already held over 7 licenses before 2023. This aimed to restrict full liquor licenses.
  • Prohibited in-store self-checkout sales of alcohol. Customers would need to conduct alcohol purchases through face-to-face transactions with a cashier.
  • Changed the formula used to calculate fines for underage sales violations. Fines would be based on total retail sales rather than just alcohol sales.
  • Added out-of-state driver’s licenses to the list of approved IDs for alcohol purchases under the liquor control law. This aimed to support tourism.
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Question 3 Supporters Focused on Compromise and Public Safety

The 21st Century Alcohol Retail Reform Committee led the “Yes on 3” campaign in support of the ballot initiative. The Massachusetts Package Stores Association was a major backer, providing over $700,000 in funding.

Key arguments made by supporters included:

  • The measure struck a reasonable compromise between expanding consumer convenience and protecting small liquor stores from unlimited chain growth.
  • Prohibiting self-checkout of alcohol and basing fines on total sales would improve public safety and vigilance around underage sales.
  • Adding out-of-state IDs would support tourism and bring MA in line with other states.

Question 3 Faced Opposition from Grocery and Retail Groups

The opposition campaign was led by Food Stores for Consumer Choice, with funding from groups like the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. Key arguments made against Question 3 included:

  • It would impose unfair penalties on retailers who sell more than just alcohol, like grocery and convenience stores.
  • Outlawing convenient point-of-sale technologies like self-checkout would be regressive.
  • Decreasing the number of full liquor licenses retailers could have would limit consumer choice.
  • The flawed approach favored special interests over consumers and retailers.

At the Ballot Box, Question 3 Was Defeated

When Massachusetts voters headed to the polls on November 8, 2022, Question 3 was defeated, with results as follows:

  • Yes: 1,069,921 votes (44.9%)
  • No: 1,312,906 votes (55.1%)

The failure of the ballot initiative highlighted disagreements between package stores wanting to protect against unlimited chain store growth, and grocery and retail groups seeking more freedom in alcohol sales regulations. Voters sided with the opponents’ arguments to reject Question 3.

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Massachusetts Has Strict Controls on Alcohol Licensing

To understand Question 3, it is helpful to look at the broader context of Massachusetts’ alcohol licensing and control system. Key aspects include:

  • The Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) oversees licensing and regulation of alcohol manufacturing, distribution, and sales.
  • Local Licensing Authorities issues retail alcohol licenses, which must be approved by the ABCC.
  • There are caps on the number of licenses available based on population quotas.
  • Retail licenses are divided into on-premise (restaurants/bars), off-premise (stores), and special (one-day) categories.
  • Currently the limit per establishment is 9 licenses across beer, wine and all alcohol.
  • Fines for underage sales are based on alcohol sales, not total sales.
  • Out-of-state IDs are not explicitly authorized for alcohol purchases.

How Question 3 Qualified for the Statewide Ballot

For a citizen-initiated statute like Question 3 to make the Massachusetts ballot, it must clear certain signature gathering requirements:

  • 80,239 valid signatures needed initially to submit to the legislature
  • If not adopted, additional 13,374 signatures required to place on the ballot

Key dates in Question 3’s path:

  • September 2021: Initiative cleared to begin signature drive
  • December 2021: Campaign submitted over 80,000 raw signatures
  • May 2022: Legislature declined to enact, allowing second signature drive
  • July 2022: Final signatures filed, measure certified for ballot

The signature collection cost supporters about $7.73 per required signature.

Major Funding to Support and Oppose

  • Yes on 3 committee raised over $1.1 million, mostly from the MA Package Stores Association.
  • No on 3 committee reported minimal funding of $12.50.
  • Retail and grocery groups like Total Wine and the MA Food Association spent heavily against Question 3.
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Key Funding Supporting

  • MA Package Stores Association: $701,048.80
  • 21st Century Alcohol Reform Committee: $991,300 total

Key Funding Opposing

  • Total Wine: $2.6 million against
  • MA Food Association: Part of opposition effort

Editorial Boards Split, Polls Showed Tight Race

Several newspapers like The Boston Globe endorsed Question 3, arguing it struck a reasonable compromise. Others opposed it as an incomplete solution.

Pre-election polls showed a very close race:

  • Late October 2022 poll: 39% support, 38% oppose, 23% undecided

Conclusion: Compromise Proved Elusive on Alcohol Regulations

The failure of Question 3 demonstrated the difficulty in trying to update Massachusetts’ strict alcohol control laws through the ballot initiative process. The measure attempted to balance expanding consumer convenience with preventing unlimited growth of chain retailers. But compromises between the two competing interests ultimately proved elusive.

Looking ahead, the future direction of alcohol sales regulations in Massachusetts remains uncertain. While this reform attempt was rejected, the underlying tensions around modernizing rules while protecting local businesses will likely continue. New proposals will need to find an equilibrium voters are satisfied with.


What was Massachusetts Question 3 trying to change?

Question 3 sought to incrementally raise the limits on the total number of retail alcohol licenses an establishment could have, prohibit self-checkout alcohol sales, change how fines are calculated for underage sales, and add out-of-state IDs as valid identification.

What were the main arguments made for and against Question 3?

Supporters focused on it striking a reasonable compromise between convenience and protecting small stores. Opponents said it was an incomplete solution that would unfairly limit larger retailers.

Who supported and opposed Question 3?

The Massachusetts Package Stores Association backed it, while retail and grocery associations opposed it.

Did Question 3 pass?

No, Question 3 failed with only 45% of voters supporting it and 55% opposed.

What does the defeat of Question 3 mean for Massachusetts alcohol laws?

It showed the difficulty of finding a compromise between updating alcohol regulations while also protecting local package stores. The future direction remains uncertain after this reform attempt was rejected.

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