New Jersey last year expanded gambling, through the introduction of sports betting it won in the Supreme Court. It’s on the verge of a vote that could legalize marijuana. And now it’s starting a deep dive into a possible major expansion of the availability of beer, wine and liquor.

The Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee held the first in what could be a series of three hearings on the topic Thursday. Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, D-Somerset, said the goal is a comprehensive look at an issue that gets piecemeal attention without ever getting to a conclusion.

“A very critically important topic, which is 71 years in the making and in need of retooling and reviewing and perhaps even rewriting,” said Danielsen. “We have the most complex alcohol laws in the nation,” with over 29 distinct liquor licenses.

“The landscape today is one of need of a fix and solutions – a system which while working for some, perhaps, is not the best interest of good public policy,” he said.

The number of liquor licenses in a municipality is fixed, dependent on the size of the population, creating a situation in which they are worth more than $1 million in some places and, in the view of some, holding back the economic benefits of a more robust restaurant industry.

Tony Pizzutillo, a public affairs consultant for NAIOP New Jersey, said market data shows small, niche restaurants are driving redevelopment.

“So the market demands these small restaurants in strip malls, in other stranded assets that need to be repurposed, and as a result of that, New Jersey suffers because it can’t participate,” Pizzutillo said.

But it’s a difficult thing to change, as current license-holders sometimes borrowed heavily for what’s a lifetime investment and key asset on their balance sheets.

“One small move in the wrong direction can irreparably damage many existing license holders, families, individuals that are struggling to make a living in this state,” said Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Ocean.

Mike Halfacre, executive director of the New Jersey Beer Wholesalers Association, said the population cap on licenses and a two-license limit for a license-holder aren’t random provisions and that 18 states have one or both of them.

“Multiple studies over the years have shown that the greater the density of outlets leads to more consumption, more crime and more public health issues,” Halfacre said.

Halfacre also made a conflicting argument in expressing concern that expanding the number of outlets selling alcohol would lead to job losses for distributors.

“The general consensus is that the amount of alcohol sold is a pie, and the pie doesn’t increase or decrease necessarily over time,” he said. “So our concern would be with that scenario that we’re not going to sell more beer. But we’re going to add more deliveries, and they’re probably going to be smaller deliveries, and it will impact our bottom line, which ultimately impacts jobs.”

“If you travel this country and in fact this world,” said Chris Natale, president of Ritchie & Page Distributing Company in Robbinsville, “you will never find more selection and availability than you will in the state of New Jersey, both on-premise and off-premise.”

That’s not the case at places such as convenience stores, said Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, C-Store and Automotive Association, who argued that special licenses should be established to allow the stores at gas stations to begin carrying beer and wine.

Eighty percent of them do that nationwide, Risalvato said, because consumers find it convenient. He said gas stations make only a small margin on fuel sales but can command larger profits from store sales.

“We’re not asking to be able to become a liquor store and sell all kinds of liquor,” Risalvato said. “We want the convenience – a carved-out license that would permit us to sell beer and wine.”

Risalvato said the same license would be available to larger convenience-store chains such as Wawa.

“We’re not looking for advantage, we’re looking for opportunity,” he said. “This is America.”

Michael DeLoreto, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Food Council and its Retailers for Responsible Liquor Licensing Coalition, said the state should change its two-license limit and allow sales in supermarkets, which is said is in the mainstream in other states.

“Alcohol has become part of the food shopping experience, and New Jersey consumers want to see beer, wine and spirits in their supermarkets,” DeLoreto said.

Bill Crosby, vice president of operations for Acme Markets, said the supermarket chain acquired five liquor licenses in New Jersey when it bought the stores vacated when A&P went bankrupt. But it was banned from selling liquor because Acme already owned two licenses at stores in Cape May County, and it doesn’t have the type of corporate structure other chains use to skirt the two-license limit.

“We are not looking to sell anything that our customers don’t want,” Crosby said. “If people didn’t ask us for it, we wouldn’t be wanting to sell it.”

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