A state lawmaker wants to dig into the functions of the "often-silent partner" in the state's alcohol system — the distributors who get beer and wine from manufacturers to retail outlets such as bars and grocery stores.
But distributors say that their role in the state’s three-tiered system is unfairly being singled out after a parting of ways in the 2013 legislative session over a disagreement about stacking licenses, which would have allowed people to hold both liquor or beer licenses and brewing licenses.
“I do get that distributors have fallen into disfavor with a handful of legislators,” said Kristi Blazer, executive director of the Montana Beer and Wine Distributors Association.
Senate Joint Resolution 26 is carried by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R- Great Falls. It’s one of many resolutions to study issues before the next legislative session. Studies are ranked by lawmakers to set top priorities to spend limited funds on.
Fitzpatrick said he brought his bill because of all the legislation he’s see in past sessions looking at the distribution of alcohol.
“We’re getting a large number of bills. They seem to be coming every session. It’s time to step back and take a look at all of our alcohol distribution systems, how well distribution laws are working, tweaks and changes to be made, are distribution laws meeting public policy objectives.”
In opposition to the bill, Blazer said she felt it singled out distributors and the only fair way to look at the alcohol distribution system would be to examine each of the three tiers — those who make alcohol, the distributors and those who sell it, such as bars and stores.
Brian Clark, who runs Fun Beverage in Kalispell, said the bill wasn’t necessary. “It seems to be included to dismantle a system just to see what happens."
Sen. Ed Buttrey, who chairs the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee that heard the resolution, was the only one to speak in support of it.
Buttrey, who owns a bar, said may of the state’s alcohol laws are outdated. He cited as examples a law that does not allow bars to take merchandise worth more than $300 from brewers to promote their products.
Buttrey said that conflicts with another law that does not allow more than six signs from one brewery to promote their projects, saying most of those signs cost more than $300 each.
“I think we’ve got outdated code and we need to look at that, Why are we getting into that minutiae? Why are we telling one business what they can give to another business to promote their product?”
He also questioned why bars are prevented from buying beer and wine at retail stores.
“In the case of a rural tavern, if they have a big Friday night or Thursday night and they run out of a certain type of beer they’re out of luck. They’re going to have to wait until whatever that scheduled date for delivery is next week.”