HELENA — Scores of additional restaurants in Montana will be able to offer beer and wine to their patrons beginning later this year, thanks to a bill approved Friday by the Legislature.
Senate Bill 296, sponsored by Sen. Dan Weinberg, D-Whitefish, increases the number of available “cabaret’’ liquor licenses, which allow restaurants to serve beer and wine without having to buy a much more expensive liquor license that also allows gambling.
In Billings, Missoula, Helena, Kalispell, Whitefish and Bozeman, more than 60 new licenses will be available after July 1.
“There are a lot of good restaurants out there that can’t serve beer and wine (now),’’ Weinberg said Friday. “This is going to be very helpful for commerce across the state.’’
The Montana House voted 77-22 to approve the final version of the bill on Friday, sending it to Gov. Brian Schweitzer for his signature into law.
The Legislature first created the restaurant beer-and-wine licenses 10 years ago. About 300 licenses are available under current law, allocated by population and geographic region.
In many cities, and particularly those with growing populations, the quota of licenses has been used up by restaurants eager to get a less-expensive beer-and-wine license.
SB296 increases the quotas for these areas.
In Billings and Yellowstone County, for example, the number of available licenses will double from 21 to 42. Missoula will see 11 new licenses, up from its current level of 17; Helena will get eight new licenses; Kalispell and Bozeman will each see 10 new licenses and Whitefish will get four.
Butte will not get any new licenses because it already has nine unused licenses from those made available 10 years ago.
Lawmakers created the “cabaret’’ license in response to the skyrocketing value of regular liquor licenses, which had become far more valuable because they were a prerequisite to offering on-premise gambling.
In major cities, the market value of a liquor license that allowed gambling has risen to as high as $800,000 or $900,000. Restaurant owners who did not want to offer gambling, but did want to offer beer and wine with meals, could not afford the high-priced licenses.
The fee for the cabaret or restaurant beer-and-wine license is $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the size of the restaurant.
Shauna Helfert, administrator of the state Liquor Control Division, said the agency will start advertising the new licenses after July 1. If a certain city has more restaurants requesting licenses than are available, the licenses will be awarded through a lottery, she said.
SB296 had little opposition and passed with the support of the Montana Tavern Association, which has been a fierce protector of those who already own the more expensive liquor licenses that allow gambling.
Mark Staples, a Helena attorney who represents the Tavern Association, said the cabaret licenses have worked well, increasing the public’s opportunity to have wine or beer with a restaurant meal without devaluing the investment of those owning regular liquor licenses.
The increased number of licenses in SB296 “strikes the right balance between caution and progressivism,’’ he said.