Warns Lawmakers That Liability Insurance Costs Could Spike
If lawmakers reach a deal to send Gov. Charlie Baker a bill reviving happy hour in willing Massachusetts cities and towns, they will do so over the opposition of an influential statewide group representing some of the very businesses who would gain the ability to offer discounted drink specials.
The Massachusetts Restaurant Association on Tuesday declared it opposes “any provision” that would update the state’s 38-year-old ban on happy hour, warning that it would expose establishments to “skyrocketing costs” of liquor liability insurance.
Stephen Clark, the group’s president and CEO, urged lawmakers negotiating a multibillion-dollar economic development bill (H 5034 / S 3030) to drop a Senate-approved provision authorizing discounted drink specials at restaurants, bars and other establishments in municipalities that opt in.
“For the last four decades, the present public policy in Massachusetts has worked. There has not been outcry from industry to change these laws. Who is asking for this change and for what reason?” Clark wrote in a letter to conference committee members working on a final bill. “Of course, consumers want to pay less. Consumers would take two-for-one gas, two-for one concert tickets, really two-for-one anything if you asked them. Just because a consumer expresses a desire to have something doesn’t mean it makes sense for the impacted business or the Commonwealth as a whole.”
Happy hour alcoholic beverage promotions have been prohibited in Massachusetts since 1984, a ban lawmakers enacted after a string of deadly drunk-driving crashes generated immense scrutiny. Past attempts to change the policy have sputtered out on Beacon Hill, where some legislators — and Gov. Charlie Baker — remain concerned, even as supporters argue the climate has changed.
Sen. Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat who filed the amendment his chamber appended to a $4.57 billion economic development bill, said the proliferation of on-demand rides with platforms like Uber and Lyft and interest from younger generations warrants a new approach.
“There’s been a tradition in Massachusetts of rethinking and moving away from our puritanical values when it comes to alcohol, when it comes to cannabis,” he said last week.
Reflecting on the pre-ban days, Clark said happy hours allowed business competition to be “driven by bad operators who were racing to the bottom” and pressed restaurants to try and attract patrons in the face of “the bar across the street’s predatory pricing policies.”
That trend left liquor liability insurance “extremely difficult to buy” and “very expensive,” Clark said. Some liability insurance carriers ceased sales in the Bay State, he said, prompting an effort to create the since-reshaped Liquor Liability Joint Underwriter’s Association “as a provider of last resort.”
“These days, liquor liability insurance is relatively inexpensive and is mandated,” Clark wrote. “A return to the old days will result in skyrocketing costs for all.”
It remains unclear if the measure will make it to Baker’s desk. The House did not include any such local-option happy hour language in its version of the economic development bill, and the chamber’s top Democrats have not given any indication if they are inclined to add it via conference committee negotiations. Speaker Ron Mariano declined to comment on the topic late last week.
And even if the House comes around to the Senate’s push, Baker and his veto pen loom as potential opponents.
“We’ve had the worst years, the past couple of years we’ve had, for auto fatalities here in the commonwealth that we’ve had in a long time. And many of those are single-car crashes, usually involving speed. We’ve proposed several pieces (of) safe driving and safe highway legislation that haven’t gone anywhere,” Baker said Tuesday. “In the absence of that legislation, I continue to have a lot of reservations about going back to happy hour.”