Standing on a Wobbly Leg

By Beacon Staff

In a state brushed with a shade of libertarian, Montana’s alcohol law stands out as elitist; dictating the number of people who can serve liquor, beer or wine by arbitrary numbers seemingly grasped out of thin air.

Earlier this month, lawmakers visited many of the state’s largest cities, spun a gold barrel (seriously) and drew the names of those who were lucky enough to score a cabaret license and, with it, earn the right to serve Budweiser with hamburgers and Yellow Tail with spaghetti. The state’s journalists, many of whom drink themselves (particularly on our staff), closely monitored the drawings. Names were selected, whoops and boos followed, and 124 people won; 408 lost.

The lottery was apparently weighed and preference given to restaurants operating at least one year which had applied in vain for a license before; the second tier was for the so-called “middle ground;” and finally would-be speculators – hoping to get a license to re-sell it for a higher price. How a ranking affected the initial outcome is unclear. In fact, when the results were announced, they were quickly put on hold.

Meanwhile, David Lewis, owner of Pescado Blanco in Whitefish, was apprehensive. Initially, he didn’t land a license and had said, as a result, he would close up shop. But when results were overturned days later he made the list. Others weren’t so lucky. They’ll have to barter for one or wait until the state releases more.

The drawing attracted all types, including former Bozeman mayor Andrew Cetraro and his kin, who among them can now serve beer in Billings, Darby, Hamilton, Hot Springs, Kalispell, Philipsburg, St. Ignatius, Stevensville, Twin Bridges, Virginia City, West Yellowstone and Whitefish. That’s a lot of booze.

The former mayor either has plans to franchise his Pub Hippo establishment in Bozeman, or he and his family are betting that these licenses will appreciate. I’ll assume the latter, and who could blame them for cashing in? I just wish I’d thought of it first.

If the state thinks this system functions properly it needs to walk the line. Cabaret licenses in this state’s fastest growing cities may soon resemble their big brother, the coveted “All Beverage” liquor and gaming license, which can fetch upwards of $1 million. That’s right. The privilege of selling something that’s legal – at least to those us old enough to grow full beards – costs as much as many 7,000-square-foot homes.

This, like many laws, has had unintended consequences, burdening local mom and pops who want to open local mom and pops bars. Meanwhile, chain restaurants can dip into much deeper coffers. It’s time to level the playing field.

One lottery loser had the great idea that anyone should be able to buy a cabaret license for $20,000, about the price of a used imported sedan. I would propose, that for a bit more, a business could buy a liquor license not attached to a gambling license. Then let the free market work itself out.

Montana government officials have said the current system is too entrenched to change and they are trying to exert some control over a dangerous substance. But if they really cared that much about us, then why did we spend a stretch of time without a speed limit or an open container law? Why can we still drive legally on the country’s deadliest highways without wearing our seatbelts? There’s a contradiction in there somewhere.

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