Originially published at Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.
In a gesture of solidarity with Ukraine, Gov. Chris Sununu has ordered all Russian booze removed from the shelves of New Hampshire’s state liquor stores. No more of Vlad’s vodka for you.
When it comes to state-run liquor stores, the government has total control over not only the products, but the layout, location, design, staffing and all other details. What might surprise Granite Staters is just how much the government controls such matters among food and beverage options in the private market as well.
The commercial and cultural landscape in which we operate everyday is shaped in powerful ways by government regulations. A quick look at two popular trends of recent years helps show how.
Not long ago, New Hampshire had no small craft breweries. It wasn’t because New Englanders were hostile to locally made beer. Vermont had a nationally renowned craft brew culture for decades. New Hampshire lagged behind because outdated state laws did not allow small breweries here.
After laws were changed several times to allow smaller and smaller brewing operations, craft breweries exploded across the state. But breweries are still constrained by absurd regulations.
For instance, breweries classified as “beverage manufacturers” rather than “brew pubs” may not operate their own restaurants. They may only contract with third-party vendors for food, including food prepared and served on-site.
Beverage manufacturers may sell beer samples on-site. But brewery owners say state regulators require them to use separate points of sale for those samples. Because beer served for drinking on-site is a “prepared food,” it is subject to the rooms and meals tax. Beer served in cans and bottles for consumption off-site is not. So regulators have required breweries to sell these items at two different cash registers, brewers say.
House Bill 1556, introduced by Rep. Ross Berry, R-Manchester, would end this absurdity by letting breweries sell samples at the same register where customers buy bottles and cans.
And beverage manufacturers may operate one — and only one — off-site retail outlet. That outlet must be able to produce beer. House Bill 1039, introduced by Rep. John Hunt, R-Ringe, would remove the production requirement so the retail outlet could be a simple store.
Food trucks are popular partners for local breweries. They attract customers without the brewery having to open its own restaurant. (And beverage manufacturers use them to comply with the law requiring third-party food vending.) But regulations make it hard for food trucks to operate in New Hampshire.
As gourmet food trucks have emerged in cities across America, the trend has faltered in New Hampshire because of the way food trucks are regulated here.
The whole point of food trucks is that they’re mobile and can go where the customers are. But food truck owners who want to roll between, say, Portsmouth, Concord, Manchester and Nashua have to pay to be licensed in each municipality.
That means paying multiple municipalities to conduct similar health and safety inspections. Then, once in town, another set of location restrictions dictates where, when, and how food trucks are allowed to operate.
House Bill 1595, introduced by Rep. Matt Wilhelm, D-Manchester, would improve this system by creating a single state-wide food truck license issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Municipalities would still get to use zoning and other ordinances to dictate where, when, and how food trucks can operate. But health and safety inspections and licensure would move to the state level.
In response to increased food truck demand, other states have begun passing similar laws. Rhode Island, Washington and Arizona have state-level food truck licensure.
HB 1595 would add New Hampshire to the short but growing list of states that have food truck freedom. But the bill received an “Inexpedient to Legislate” (kill) recommendation from the House Commerce Committee.
Among committee members’ stated reasons for opposing the bill is that it would take revenue from municipalities and add a small cost (for a single staffer) at the state Department of Health and Human Services.
New Hampshire has 175 licensed food trucks, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. A state food truck license would reduce financial and paperwork burdens, resulting in more food trucks. That would help our rapidly aging state attract more young people, and help our businesses attract more employees during this severe labor shortage.
But that probably won’t happen this year because some legislators think maintaining local food truck licensing revenue is more important than stimulating entrepreneurship and improving the quality of life of Granite Staters.
Given the choice between losing a few thousand dollars in local licensing revenue (not remotely enough to trigger tax increases), or gaining more taco trucks, we’re pretty sure the vast majority of Granite Staters would go with the taco trucks.
This summer, when you wish there were more food trucks in New Hampshire, or that you could have fresh chili on the hot dog you just bought from that push cart vendor (sorry, it has to be pre-made chili in a single-serving package), you’ll know that it’s not because people don’t want to provide you that service. It’s because regulations make it harder than necessary for them to do it.