Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) – Montana lawmakers are considering a package of bills that would overhaul alcohol regulations in the state. Some are part of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s “red-tape” initiative aimed at cutting unnecessary or outdated business regulations.

Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, is the sponsor of Senate Bills 21, 75 and 59.

“I think many of you know, the governor's office has sat down and gone through many of the code provisions and tried to identify some language that can be cleaned up, clarified, modified, to make life easier for everybody,” Fitzpatrick said.

The three measures introduced in the Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs committee Wednesday deal with issues ranging from vetting the people managing the sale and serving of alcohol to new regulations for out-of-state breweries.

SB 21 would identify a specific manager for businesses that sell alcohol and require that manager to submit fingerprints to ensure they don’t have a criminal record in order for businesses to get an alcoholic beverage license.

SB 21 drew no opponents and proponents of the bill only suggested minor amendments to improve the clarity and timeline of the bill.

SB 59 was the most controversial of the three bills in the package. It would clarify language on how many special licenses wineries can have. A special license allows a business the ability to sell alcohol to patrons at special events like sporting events.

“So current law allows a licensed winery in Montana to obtain special permits, but is silent as to how many they can obtain, where the statute spells out how many special permits can be issued for other entity types,” said Becky Schlauch, the division administrator for the Department of Revenue and a proponent of the bill.

SB 59 would cut the number of special licenses wineries could have from 12 to three. The  Winery Association of Montana opposed the bill. Brian McGuire said the bill misinterprets best business practices for wineries.

“The number being dropped from 12 to three without explanation as to what is the advantage of doing so has a tremendous disadvantage on specifically wine sales because they are large in part direct sales between the wine producer and the consumer. And permits are the occasion when that is done,” McGuire said.

Finally, SB 75, would clarify who must be vetted when they apply for alcohol licenses. It would also change requirements for out-of-state breweries.

“There are currently 125 out-of-state breweries and beer importers that are currently licensed with the department. We proposed creating a registration for those out-of-state breweries and beer importers because they're not historically required to meet vetting requirements that other licensees do,” Schlauch said.

No one testified against the bill.

The committee did not take any immediate action on the package, opting to amend the bills before the committee votes on advancing the bills.

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