Senators resist lifeline for alcohol makers, seasonal bars
A Senate committee at a hearing Monday hesitated on throwing an extended lifeline to the state’s alcoholic beverage licensees and manufacturers struggling to recoup income lost during the pandemic.
The Senate Law and Public Safety Committee did vote to advance a bill that would extend the current summer season retail consumption licenses due to expire in mid-November until Jan. 14, 2022 – a nod to this year’s prohibition on selling alcohol for on-site consumption.
The bill was going to be amended to extend to April 30, 2022, which would have essentially extended their licenses through mid-November 2022 as it would have led directly into that summer season. But lawmakers balked at the unexpected amendment, and after some backroom discussions it was shelved.
“That’s news to me sitting here,” said Sen. Joseph Cryan, D-Union.
“That's news to all of us,” said Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris.
The committee also didn’t vote on a bill on its agenda that would create temporary and permanent privileges to breweries, wineries, distilleries and other alcohol manufacturers, including the ability to hold festivals, increase production limits, coordinate with local restaurants and food trucks and deliver products directly to people’s homes.
“This legislation gives these small businesses a chance to get back on their feet,” said Eric Orlando, lobbyist for the Brewers Guild of New Jersey. “The last eight months have been extremely tough for the hospitality industry in New Jersey, including those who produce the locally made alcoholic beverage poured and enjoyed at our state’s bars and restaurants.”
The bill was passed 58-8 with seven abstentions by the Assembly on June 29.
Alexis Degan, executive director of the New Jersey Brewers Association, said restrictions on breweries’ tasting rooms, advertising and ability to bring products to events stymie the industry’s growth and have some breweries looking to other states to expand or relocate.
“We stand in the midst of a crisis, when doing the most we can for our small businesses could be difference between their ability to weather the storm or having to close permanently,” Degan said.
Cryan said the increased amount of alcohol that distilleries and breweries could produce under the bill concerns him because it blurs the difference between a brewpub and a bar.
“A bar is able to serve any alcohol at all that’s legal to buy and sell,” Degan said. “A brewery can only sell the beer that it makes on-site. And that’s a huge difference.”
“That’s pretty much it with those gallonage figures, isn’t it?” Cryan said.
Asked by Cryan about the industry’s success rate, Degan said five breweries have closed in recent years. Earlier, she said 141 have opened.
“A pretty high percentage” of success, Cryan said. “So really the regulations aren’t so rough, right, if we have that kind of percentage of success. Maybe we need to grow, but.”
“It is a brand-new industry, so it’s hard to say,” Degan said. “Most of the breweries are less than five years old, which they say is the time to give for a new business to understand whether it will succeed or fail.”
“Fair point,” Cryan said.
Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, said he sympathizes with the breweries but doesn’t yet support the bill because he needs an opportunity to talk with constituents who have expressed concerns.
The bill wasn’t listed for consideration until Friday night. Though it wasn’t labeled as being for discussion only, Greenstein made clear before the testimony began that no vote was planned Monday.
“Going forward, I’m interested, but a whole ton of questions came in, so I’m hopefully that you and the industry can engage the folks that have problems before we do have it on the agenda for a vote,” said O’Scanlon.
O’Scanlon said the same about the bill extending seasonal licenses and abstained from the vote, as did Bucco.
“We’ve got to do a better job at getting these bills that are going to be acted upon out in public discourse earlier,” he said. “Again, both these bills we didn’t see until Friday evening that they were going to be on for today. I have had numerous calls from people who had concerns. I just haven’t been able to connect with them. So as much I sympathize with this, I can’t vote for it today.”
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.