A public hearing is tomorrow in Helena on proposed changes to the Montana Department of Revenue's rules governing businesses that sell alcohol. Written comments will also be accepted through Nov. 30.
With public outrage building against Montana's drinking and driving culture and the increased visibility of campaigns like Mariah's Challenge that discourage underage drinking, you'd think the proposal would be for cracking down harder on establishments caught selling booze to minors.
Well, think again.
Changes up for discussion would actually weaken penalties imposed on businesses whose clerks or bartenders are caught selling to minors — if they agree to provide alcohol server training to all staff within 30 days of hire.
Under the current rules, businesses are slapped with a $250 administrative penalty the first time an employee is caught selling alcohol to a minor; second offense is a $1,000 fine; third, a $1,500 fine or a 20-day license suspension, and a fourth offense can mean license revocation if all four violations come within a three-year period.
Under the new rules, businesses would get just a warning the first time, and license revocation would not be an option until violation No. 6 during a three-year period. Fines would be reduced to $100, second offense; $250, third; $750, fourth; and $1,500 and/or a two-day suspension for a fifth offense in a three-year period.
These new rules would be tested until June, 30, 2011, to see if they led to a decrease in sales to minors due to the strong incentive to provide alcohol server training to all staff.
A more sure-fire route to the desired result would be to leave the penalty schedule as is and make alcohol server training mandatory for all businesses. Eighteen states require mandatory training, according to the Montana Community Change Project, and Montana should join them.
The only reason DOR is proposing these rule changes is House Bill 211. It passed the House 88-12 during the 2009 session and was headed for passage in the Senate. Sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, and called the "Responsible Alcohol Vendor Act," it called for protecting businesses from license revocation for alcohol sales to minors if they provided staff training, and it also said the training should be a "mitigating factor" in determining penalties and fines.
Shauna Helfert, administrator for the DOR's liquor control division, said the department approached lawmakers and said the proposed changes did not require passage of a new law. Rather, they could be implemented through administrative rule changes since the current penalties were spelled out in the rules. As a result, the bill died in the Senate and discussions began on proposed rule changes.
Which brings us to the present. And while we sympathize with the business owners' challenge of impressing upon their staff the importance of not selling alcohol to minors — and we certainly don't want to see any business lose a license — weakening the penalties sends the wrong message and represents a step backward in our state's efforts to curb underage drinking.
Even the hearing notice itself states that Montana's current penalties for first-violation sales to minors are "already among the most lenient in the nation." It's far too easy for those under 21 to buy alcohol in this state, and everyone whose job duties involve the sale of alcohol should fear for their job if caught in the act of selling to a minor. Mandatory alcohol sales and server training — not weaker rules — would be a step in the right direction.
If you agree and would like to let the state know, the hearing starts tomorrow, Nov. 18, at 10 a.m. in the Sam W. Mitchell Building, 125 N. Roberts in Helena. You may also send comments by Nov. 30 to Cleo Anderson, DOR Director's Office, P.O. Box 7701, Helena, Montana 59604-7701; by fax to (406) 444-3696; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Training well attended in Butte The state already provides voluntary Responsible Alcohol Sales/Service classes. Dan Haffey, Butte-Silver Bow's director of prevention services, teaches them here in Butte and southwest Montana and said they have been well attended.
"I can't say enough good about people wanting to get involved and take the class," Haffey told The Standard last week.
Thriftway and Town Pump have been very proactive in trying to educate all their staff, Haffey said, and the county also got good participation from Uptown bar owners last summer for classes held before the National Folk Festival and Evel Knievel Days.
The next free training will probably take place just before Thanksgiving, Haffey said. Sessions are open to all servers and clerks and even to those who hope to get a job in a bar or a store down the line. For more information, call 497-5073.