Opponents of a controversial bill that proposes major changes to the state’s liquor license fee laws — including a lower buy-in for restaurants that want to serve alcohol — are determined to become a major roadblock to the legislation.

This story also appeared in Santa Fe New Mexican

Nearly three-dozen opponents on Wednesday spoke against House Bill 255, one of several liquor license bills introduced in this year’s 60-day legislative session, saying it would damage their six-figure investments in liquor licenses and become a potential death sentence on their businesses.

“Those of us [with long-term licenses] will fail due to devaluing our liquor licenses,” said Christine Zalesiak, who owns The Melting Pot in Albuquerque and one of many restaurant owners to testify before the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee. “Replacing us with new liquor license holders is simply not the answer.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said the bill is meant not only to update the decades-old liquor license law that has increased liquor license fees well over $500,000, but to encourage new restaurateurs to get into business at an affordable price. 

The bill allows home delivery of alcohol if it accompanies a food sale, creates a new category of restaurant liquor licenses that include hard liquor but require closure by 11 p.m. and offers a $200,000 tax deduction for current liquor license holders.

Those new liquor licenses, which cannot be put up for sale or lease, would run from $5,000 to $20,000 based on the size of the restaurant. 

Many current license holders said even a $200,000 tax deduction is not enough to make up for their initial investments, especially since that break is based on gross receipts of alcohol sales — which have been on the decline in the past year because of the coronavirus pandemic and are unlikely to rebound anytime soon. “That’s very little help for most of us,” said Neil Roe, a restaurant owner from Roswell.

The committee deviated from usual protocol and voted 6-3 to make no recommendation on the bill. Nonetheless, it will move forward to the House Taxation and Revenue Committee for consideration. 

During a session in which several key issues have taken center stage — gun control laws, the repeal of a decades-old bill criminalizing those who perform abortions and a push to legalize the use of recreational marijuana — legislation attempting to update liquor license laws is drawing plenty of notice, and criticism. 

Lawmakers are trying to figure out how to appease current license holders while helping an industry hit hard by the pandemic — in a state constantly grappling with a serious DWI problem. 

Some restaurant owners who weighed in during Wednesday’s hearing said the bill will only increase the number of places selling alcohol and “flood” the state with liquor. Maestas said that was not his intent. He and several lawmakers on the committee said the state must do something to revise the liquor license law, which last underwent a major change in 1981.

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said those laws are “hampering” economic development in the restaurant and hospitality industry, which needs a hook to stage a comeback in the wake of the pandemic.

“Not doing anything is not an option,” he said. “We’ve got to do something. Whether we do it this session, whether we do it next session, we’ve got to do something.

“The status quo is great for the folks who already have it [license],” Gonzales continued, “but it’s something that is a huge detriment and a huge obstacle to the small entrepreneur trying to break into the business.”

Only one person spoke in favor of the bill — until he found out grocery stores can only deliver liquor as well if they are smaller than 10,000 square feet. He then commented that he should have joined the opposition movement.