BOSTON - More than three decades after Massachusetts' last happy hour, Republicans want to ease limits on discount drinks at clubs and restaurants.

Lawmakers say discounts give small businesses a competitive edge against larger establishments, as well as casinos that will be allowed to serve free drinks in gaming areas.

"We're not trying to bring back happy hour," said House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading. "We're trying to even the playing field by allowing bars and restaurants to be able to get a few more people in the door on days when they aren't busy."

The state banned bars and restaurants from selling lower-priced drinks during "happy hours" in 1984 after a Braintree woman was killed by a drunken driver who had consumed several beers at a promotional event.

Jones and other GOP legislators filed a budget amendment to allow bars and restaurants to offer discounted drinks between Sundays and Wednesdays, provided that a promotion lasts at least three days. The measure was withdrawn last week due to a lack of support.

Regardless, supporters expect the proposal to be revived in the current legislative session.

"Business owners should be able to offer discounted drinks," said Rep. Leah Cole, R-Peabody, who supports easing happy hour restrictions. "It would really help business attract customers on slow nights."

But the proposal is controversial, and even some in the bar and restaurant industry don't support it.

Stephen Clark, director of government affairs for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said many owners worry that a return of happy hour will create a harmful "race to the bottom."

"They don't want to get into the race of lowering prices to compete," he said. "Certainty there's some operators who say they want to offer discounted drinks, but once they weigh the risks, many realize it's not worth it."

Massachusetts requires businesses with liquor licenses to get liability insurance coverage that would increase premiums if they were allowed to offer discounted booze, driving up operating costs, Clark said.

Clark said the state could relax the rules to give restaurant owners options without lifting the ban entirely.

"I think that would be a fair compromise without reverting back to the happy hour days," he said.

Some restauranteurs say they would welcome eased restrictions.

The ability to offer discounted wine or craft beer with a dinner package on certain days of the week would be helpful, says Michael Minichello, director of operations for Tavern on the Square bar and restaurant, which has eight locations including one in Salem.

Under the current rules, businesses that want to run such promotions have to offer the discount seven days a week, which just isn't practical, he said.

"The industry is always looking for a competitive edge," Minichello said.

A 2013 report by state alcohol regulators suggested that repealing the happy hour ban would be "economically and socially detrimental" yet wouldn't prevent restaurants from losing ground to casinos.

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission found many restaurant owners fear that easing the ban will allow establishments to undercut each other’s prices, making their business models unprofitable.

Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, whose office oversees the ABCC, declined to comment on efforts to ease the ban.

Offering free alcoholic drinks is a common marketing tactic among casino operators, who make most of their profits from gambling and can absorb the losses of offering booze and other perks to customers.

A provision in the 2011 Gaming Act allows casinos to serve free alcoholic drinks in their gaming areas, though not in bars or restaurants associated with the gambling ventures.

In addition to a slots parlor in Plainville, the Gaming Commission has approved two casinos for locations in Everett and Springfield. A third license for the South Shore is expected to be awarded later this year.

Massachusetts is one of 10 states - including Vermont, North Carolina and Indiana - where happy hour is totally banned, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Others, such as New Hampshire and Maine, allow happy hours but restrict the days on which discounts are allowed and the number of drinks served. 

Advocates for victims of drunken driving say the ban on happy hour and a raft of other restrictions set in place since the 1980s have made the state's roads safer and shouldn't be scaled back.

"We certainly don't oppose the sale of alcohol to adults, when done in a responsible fashion," said David DeIuliis, a spokesman for the Massachusetts chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "But it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to overturn this law, which is clearly working. That wouldn't be a responsible move."

Christian Wade covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Massachusetts newspapers.

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