BYOB Blocking Bill Rejected by Montana Legislature

A bill to clearly prohibit patrons from bringing their own alcohol into restaurants and other establishments that do not have an on-premise alcohol license was rejected by the Montana House of Representatives today on a 31-69 vote.  Sponsored by Representative Roger Hagan, House Bill 405 easily passed out of committee (17-3), but it wasn’t even close in the first vote before the entire House.

While the BYOB practice is arguably already prohibited under Montana law, the legislature’s rejection of HB 405 suggests they may not agree with such an interpretation.  Representative Hagan argued at the committee hearing that the bill would help the Department of Revenue and local law enforcement enforce violations by non-licensed establishments. He and several of the proponents made mention of courts refusing to enforce Montana’s bottle club statute against restaurants allowing the BYOB practice because the language was too vague.

Frankly, given the curious and vague language of the current statute, some clarification would be a good thing, no matter which direction the legislature wants to go. Indeed, enforcement of the current law is particularly problematic due to the current language.  Yet, contrary to the headline for a story running on some Montana’s news sites, the legislature’s actions did not suddenly make the BYOB practice legal.

What is perhaps most interesting about the House of Representative’s rejection of HB 405 is who was its most ardent supporter:  The Montana Tavern Association.  John Iverson of the MTA requested an amendment to make sure “what we’re trying to do” actually is accomplished by the bill.  The MTA wants those who have not purchased an alcohol license to “play by the rules.”  It’s an interesting concept to hear the MTA advance given they admit Montana’s breweries comply with Montana law – yet are simultaneously working to introduce a bill to change those rules to better serve the MTA’s purpose.

Representative Hagan and the MTA are the same team working on the second version of their brewery killing bill described by the Montana Brewers Association here.  During his comments on the House floor today, Rep. Hagan made mention of that bill. He reminded his fellow representatives that HB 405 was not “the brewers’ bill, so don’t vote accordingly.” “You may have seen an email or two concerning brewers,” he continued, “this is not the bill. You’ll have plenty of time to discuss that one in the future.”

It seems word is getting out.

Comments from legislators during floor discussion made reference to concerns that various activities where people congregate and enjoy a beer would now become a criminal offense.  One suggested the bill would hurt small businesses which should be entitled to allow people to bring in a bottle of wine to enjoy with their meal.

If nothing else, the House vote on HB 405 demonstrates the MTA’s bills do not automatically enjoy a free pass through the Legislature. More importantly, if the House rejects a bill that attempts to clarify a BYOB practice that is arguably already illegal, they aren’t likely to appreciate a bill that severely cripples a $50 million dollar industry largely comprised of small businesses. 

For all our articles pertaining to the 2013 Montana Legislature, click here