Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) A bill that would allow state agency Montana liquor stores to remain open on holidays and Sundays appears to have gathered enough support to pass, especially among lawmakers who want to add the measure to a list of ways to get state government out of private business.

House Bill 867, sponsored by Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, also picked up an important group of supporters since the bill’s first introduction in the Montana House — the Montana Tavern Association.

Originally, bars and taverns had opposed the bill that would allow “agency” stores to remain open on holidays, Sundays and some Mondays. The Montana Tavern Association opposed the bill, saying that agency stores would have an unfair advantage over package stores and bars by being open similar hours, being guaranteed a commission on every bottle purchased, and having as long as 60 days of credit from the State of Montana.

Agency liquor stores are 93 stores spread throughout the state that purchase liquor directly from the state’s main distribution warehouse. They’re guaranteed a rate of return. Those individual stores then sell to bars and restaurants, as well as having a retail operation. The agency stores used to be called (and, in some cases are still named) “state liquor stores” because they were previously run by the state with state employees until they were privatized in 1995. Since then, those stores have been franchisees, but the policy that kept the stores closed on Sundays, Mondays and holidays has remained on the books and in force.

“It’s hard to think of any other business where the state government can tell a private business what days you have to be open and products you can sell,” Buttrey said. “It seems like good policy to get government out of private business.”

Originally, the Montana Tavern Association opposed the bill, saying the stores being able to sell without restrictions would hurt business at bars and their companion package store liquor businesses. But in a compromise, Buttrey and the Tavern Association supported an amendment that would give taverns, bars, package stores and restaurants as long as seven days of credit to pay for the liquor – an idea borrowed from beer and wine distributors. Because of that, the Montana Tavern Association switched from an opponent to a proponent.

HB 867 passed the Montana House with bipartisan support, 83-16.

However, not everyone was happy.

The Montana Gaming Association, which often goes hand-in-hand with bars in the state, remained opposed during hearings in both the House and Senate. Lobbyist Shauna Helfert argued that HB 867 won’t necessarily increase the market or demand for alcohol, rather it will just shift it from one set of businesses to another, creating winners and losers in the legislation.

“This isn’t creating new markets or new customers,” Helfert said.

Buttrey, though, pushed back on that concern.

“These (agency) stores offer liquor. That’s all they can do. They can’t offer gaming,” Buttrey said. “Let these businesses succeed and let them decide which days they’re open and what holidays they’re open.”

Leta McGann has run the agency liquor store in Red Lodge for nearly 20 years, and as a business in a resort town, she’s forced to close on holidays, including during the city’s largest event over the Fourth of July, which can bring 15,000 people to town.

Not only does she hear the door rattling because of people trying to enter the business, many of the bars, which are also her customers, start to run out of alcohol.

“I am even unable to help the bars,” she said.

Between holidays and Sundays, she said she’s forced to close at least 63 days per year.

Sarah Ouellette, who runs the Big Sky agency store, said her problem looks a bit different: Her store also sells other items, including souvenirs. So, when customers enter the store on Sundays, she has to tell them that they can’t purchase alcohol they see on her shelf.

“And in a resort town, every night is Friday night,” she said. “Help us fix this problem.”

Jennifer Hensley of the Montana Distillers Guild supported the effort, too.

“It’s time to bring the 21st Amendment into the 21st Century,” she said. “We depend on the success of the small liquor store.”

Mark Lewis of Bozeman, who appeared before the House and Senate committees considering the bill, said that Montana has been making changes to agency stores for years since it privatized in 1995. For example, he said the contract used to call for agency stores to have a fax machine and an ad in the Yellow Pages.

“That’s been changed and updated,” he said. “I am not even sure where to go or who to talk with about the Yellow Pages. It’s culturally different now. Customers don’t understand why we are closed when another liquor store is open.”

Lewis also appealed to Montana’s second largest industry, behind agriculture.

“This is also about the convenience for those out-of-state tourists who are not familiar with our state liquor laws,” he said. “And this really is a vestige when our stores were run by state employees.”