Murphy renews push for liquor license expansion, saying it ultimately would benefit all restaurants

Gov. Phil Murphy, speaking Tuesday to hundreds of business leaders at the ReNew Jersey Business Summit & Expo, used the moment to continue his push for liquor license reform in the state.

The reform — which essentially means making it far easier (and cheaper) to get a liquor license — is about fairness.

“Many of our local restaurants aren’t being given the equal opportunity to thrive as some of their peers,” Murphy told the crowd. “And I say peers, deliberately, not competitors, but peers, because, on Main Street, it’s not one restaurant versus another, it’s every restaurant working in tandem to pull visitors in.

“Some of these establishments have a leg up on their own economic certainty because they hold a liquor license. Thanks to a legal foundation built in the aftermath of Prohibition, liquor licenses are purposely scarce. And I don’t have to tell a room full of businesspeople what happens when anything in great demand is scarce. You know, as well as I do, the price goes up.”

Murphy said the high cost of liquor licenses — often at least $500,000 and up to $1 million or more — ensures only chains or those with wealthy backers can get them.

That’s not fair, Murphy said.

“The reform law that we have put forward is about allowing restaurants to work on a level playing field. It’s about helping young chefs to open their own places, knowing that they can have a real chance of success in a notoriously hard business,” he said.

“It’s about ensuring that the Black- and brown-owned restaurants, and restaurants opened by new immigrants eager to share the cuisines of their homelands with a hungry state, each of those have the opportunity to succeed.”

Opponents of liquor license expansion have long pointed to two things: that too many current licenses are not being used — and the owners of current licenses in use have made a huge financial commitment to get them.

They, to use the governor’s words, say expansion would be unfair to them.

Murphy mentioned a targeted tax break that he says will help those who have invested get some of their money back — though, to be fair, it’s not likely to be near what they have invested.

More than that, Murphy hinted that the courts are on the side of liquor license expansion — and that a license is just that, a license — not property.

“Moreover, the courts have stated directly that ‘a desire to protect other businesses from economic competition is an impermissible consideration for blocking even on limited liquor license expansion allowed under our current law,’” he said.

Murphy reiterated that expansion would help all — as well as bringing the state into modern times.

“Our effort to reform our liquor license regime is about simplifying the jumbled mess that puts New Jersey at a distinct disadvantage with our neighboring states — a jumbled mess that has been made through years of laws written on top of other laws and decades of some self-interested haves, working to block many more have-nots,” he said.

“In a way, that’s what’s driven our entire administration from the start. We came in and found a state where a select few were chosen for success, and everyone else had to scrap and claw to find their toehold for success.

“We’re not concerned with giving one person or one business a bigger slice of the pie than another. Our aim is very simple. And that is to make a bigger pie.”