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House tables bill allowing bars in closer proximity to schools

“Normalizing drinking during the day by allowing young children to view the behavior from their schools is harmful to children’s development of healthy attitudes about drinking,” said Julie Kleine of Bozeman, one of two mothers who testified Friday.

By Cole Grant/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA – It’s been a boozy week in the House Business and Labor Committee at the 2017 Montana Legislature.

The committee tabled a bill Friday that would have cut in half how far a retail business that serves alcohol has to be from a school or place of worship.

House Bill 535 would’ve cut that distance down to 300 feet, but it would only apply if the customers aren’t visible from either of those places.

“Each side gains something, and each side would give up something, which of course is the definition of a fair compromise,” said Rep. Jim Hamilton, D-Bozeman, the bill’s sponsor.

He also said it would also get rid of a loophole in current law.

Under current law, if a business is less than 600 feet away from a school or place of worship and on the same street, it can’t serve alcohol.

According to Google Maps, the Hawthorne School in Bozeman is 308 feet away from a bar. But, the bar’s address is on a different street than the school’s. So, it is completely legal.

“Normalizing drinking during the day by allowing young children to view the behavior from their schools is harmful to children’s development of healthy attitudes about drinking,” said Julie Kleine of Bozeman, one of two mothers who testified Friday.

If the business has an outdoor seating area, it must be closed during school hours on school days if the bill passes.

John Iverson with the Montana Tavern Association opposes the visibility requirements, which he said are subjective.

“Whether that’s Zoo Drive in Billings, or 19th in Bozeman, or, you know, Reserve in Missoula, it’s going to push taverns, hotels, restaurants away from the downtown areas,” he said.

The legislation would not apply to wineries, distilleries or breweries, since they operate under a different license. The bill’s sponsor said he would be open to amending the bill to include those businesses as well.

House Bill 535 is one of several bills dealing with alcohol the committee heard this week.

The committee passed a bill Friday that would allow small Montana breweries to produce six times the amount of beer they can now.

The committee also passed a bill this week that would give distilleries an extra hour for on-premise consumption, just like breweries have.

Cole Grant is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.