A recently discovered glitch in a law passed 45 years ago threatened to force many Maine municipalities to conduct new local option elections to determine which establishments would need liquor licenses to operate within their borders — referenda that had the potential to crimp popular businesses.

The state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, which caught the issue during a three-year legal review, notified Lewiston and scores of other towns and cities throughout Maine that they would need to hold new local option elections to ensure continued availability of liquor at some bars and restaurants.

But legislators raced in recent weeks to fix the problem and avoid the necessity of holding many costly and unnecessary public votes by allowing local governments to waive the need for a referendum. Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill into law Friday.

State Rep. Kristen Cloutier, a Lewiston Democrat, urged colleagues to support “this very important and very timely” measure rather than risk undercutting existing establishments.

“As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to do all we can to support our local businesses who stuck it out and kept their heads above water in the hopes of a brighter future,” she told a committee last month. “Allowing our local elected officials the ability to confirm with BABLO that the sale of liquor is authorized within the city is vital to the survival of our local hospitality industry.”

The director of BABLO, Gregg Mineo, said that until 1976, referenda on alcohol specified the type of establishments allowed and the types of alcohol allowed. For example, he said, many restaurants at the time could not serve malt liquor while clubs and taverns could only serve malt liquor.

“Fast forward 50 years,” he said, and there are many more options on the books, including 17 that should not be permitted in more than 270 municipalities because those types of licenses didn’t exist when voters there agreed to allow liquor sales.

The trouble is, they’ve been allowed to operate all along because nobody realized that a 1970s law didn’t allow them to extend their sales as new options arose.

The city clerk of South Portland, Emily Scully, told legislators that 13 businesses in her town, including caterers, bowling centers and performing arts venues, would face possible hardships without a change in the law. The majority of them, she said, have operated for years and their liquor licenses had “never been called into question until now” when officials realized they fit into classifications that didn’t exist before 1977.

Mineo pointed out that at least 378 restaurants in Maine, many of them in state’s largest cities, operate in places that likely restricted their options in the public votes held half a century or more ago.

Mineo was among those calling on the Legislature and Mills to fix the problem by adopting a new statute that allowed city and town governments to grant the approvals rather than forcing new votes at the polls.

Patti Dubois, chair of the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association legislative policy committee, said the revision “will likely result in significant cost savings” for municipalities that won’t need to ask the public to vote on the issue.

HospitalityMaine called the measure “a common-sense way for state government to help local government and our industry to modernize this piece of statute and eliminate a tremendous amount of work and expense to rectify the situation.”

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