Governor Murphy will conditionally veto bill that lifts brewery event, food restrictions

Murphy wants measure to include new liquor license rules

By: - September 8, 2023 7:08 am

Gov. Phil Murphy will ask the Legislature to approve a rewritten bill that includes broader liquor license reforms late this year. (Getty Images)

Gov. Phil Murphy will conditionally veto a bipartisan bill lifting event and food restrictions imposed on the state’s breweries later this year, a spokesperson said.

The bill has sat on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk since lawmakers sent it there with unanimous votes in late June. Murphy intends to send it back to the Legislature in hopes that legislators will support a version of the bill that eases the state’s liquor license limits, a Murphy administration goal.

“The governor unequivocally supports easing restrictions on New Jersey breweries, which is why he proposed these reforms himself earlier this year,” said Jennifer Sciortino, the spokesperson. “However, he has been clear that our outdated liquor license system needs comprehensive reform, not a piecemeal approach.”

Sciortino said Murphy will conditionally veto the bill to add other liquor license reform provisions once legislators return to Trenton following November’s elections, when all 120 legislative seats are on the ballot.

The legislation as written would rewrite regulations issued by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control in 2019 that, among other things, imposed sharp limits on the number of events craft alcohol manufacturers can hold each year and barred them from serving all food save token snacks like prepackaged pretzels.

The division suspended those regulations under a July directive, but they’re due to resume on January 1.

Brewery owners have opposed the rules and support the bill Murphy plans to conditionally veto.

“We were trying to kind of get rid of this issue and take it away entirely by getting a bill to the governor’s desk, but here we still are,” said Eric Orlando, executive director of the Brewers Guild of New Jersey. “It looks like we’re going to be playing this out through lame duck.”

The governor has sought to rewrite New Jersey’s Prohibition-era liquor laws to loosen — and eventually lift — population caps imposed on retail liquor licenses, among other things. Current law allows a municipality one retail license per 3,000 residents.

The short supply of licenses has pushed their costs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and sometimes above $1 million. Existing license holders have opposed the governor’s efforts at change, saying they are concerned an increase in license supply would erode the value of expensive licenses some view as retirement nest eggs.

Last month, Murphy signaled he would not sign new brewery regulations into law absent those broader reforms.

“I think they deserve to have that freedom, but I want that to be part of a broader package,” he said of brewery rules following an unrelated event in August. “The facts remain the same — we have Prohibition-era laws guiding our liquor licenses, and I find that unacceptable.”

Poll finds broad support for most new liquor license rules

But Murphy’s liquor license plan was met with a frosty reception from lawmakers when introduced earlier this year.

The brewery bill has faced some opposition from restaurateurs who believe it would turn craft alcohol manufacturers into competitors, but it has dodged the broader opposition leveled at Murphy’s plan.

“Overall, it’s a good piece of legislation,” said Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), the brewery bill’s prime sponsor. “We worked really hard on it, and I’m confident, at the end of the day, that it will be the law of the land.”

Caught in limbo

Industry officials said the delay has affected brewers despite the rules reprieve the Murphy administration granted in July.

“It’s just this level of uncertainty and unpredictability,” Orlando said. “We’ve had, since the beginning of the summer, about a brewery a month close or signal they intend to close. Part of the reasoning is they can’t deal with a business climate and a regulatory environment that changes every six months.”

Craft manufacturers have already begun looking at event and vendor bookings for 2024, Orlando said, but have been hamstrung by the uncertain landscape.

They’re also concerned negotiations over the bill could stretch into the final weeks of the Legislature’s lame-duck session, pushing talks into January, when strict brewery rules could take effect once more.

“We operate on that rhythm in politics in New Jersey. Small businesses like this don’t,” Orlando said. “They can’t adjust and pivot that quickly, so I think we really need a signal sooner or later about what direction this is going to go in.”

The Senate could push Murphy to act sooner by calling a quorum. In New Jersey, bills that sit on the governor’s desk for 45 days or more become law when their originating chamber next calls a quorum.

Neither legislative chamber is expected to reconvene before November’s elections.

“I’m hoping that there is a broader resolution here, and I’m going to stay at that doggedly until, God willing, we get to that result,” Murphy said in August.


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.