New Jersey’s liquor license laws have generally remained unchanged for decades and have been a sore spot for municipalities seeking to fuel economic growth and small businesses hoping to open in town centers across the State. Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Raj Mukherji have heard those concerns and others, and recently sponsored a bill in the New Jersey Assembly, A3494, which proposes reforms to the NJ liquor license system.
Under the current liquor license laws, the State of New Jersey limits the number of maximum liquor licenses within a municipality based on population. Critics of the existing framework argue that the municipalities are beholden to census numbers that are updated every 10 years and with many of the issued licenses pocketed and not in use, many business owners that are ready and willing to serve cannot because of population density issues and pocketed licenses. Proponents of reform also note that liquor licenses tend to be very expensive, even topping $1,000,000 in some particularly hot markets, which may give established restaurant groups with deeper pockets an advantage over start-ups.
The bill, in its proposed form, would allow municipalities to issue two new types of liquor licenses to smaller businesses. One proposed license would permit service at tables, but not at a bar, and another proposed license would allow for only beer and wine service. The new licenses would have a significantly lower price than the existing liquor licenses. However, existing liquor license owners oppose the bill because new purchasers would be able to obtain a liquor license at a much lower cost which, in turn, may devalue existing liquor licenses obtained at a high price tag. To address this concern, the bill contemplates a tax credit to those existing businesses that have paid market value for their licenses, with a portion of the initial fee and renewal fees for new licenses paid to the State to help offset the cost of tax credits that would be issued to existing license holders.
The bill was released from the Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee on May 17, 2018 and subsequently referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. As Assemblyman John Burzichelli has said, the bill is a work in progress. For now, supporters of the bill will need to wait and see if the traction persists and in the meantime, continue to BYOB.