HELENA - Citing stiff opposition, the state Revenue Department on Thursday rejected a proposal to temporarily weaken penalties for bars, casinos and stores caught illegally selling alcohol to minors, if they voluntarily train employees on responsible alcohol sales.
A leading advocate for tougher penalties for drunken drivers praised the department for scrapping the industry proposal. However, the leader of an industry coalition that pushed it said she felt somewhat betrayed by the Schweitzer administration.
Instead of adopting the rule, the Revenue Department, which issues licenses to sell liquor, beer and wine, took a decidedly different tack.
It called for an informational hearing May 26 to seek a thorough review and discussion of Montana's current penalties for selling alcohol to minors and intoxicated people. It is asking for public comments on whether the current state penalties for these violations are effective deterrents and whether they need to be revised.
The department also wants comment on whether there are any circumstances in Montana "that justify generally lower levels of penalties for sales to minors or intoxicated persons as compared to nearby states," the notice said. (See related story).
"This is just an initial step of gathering information," Revenue Director Dan Bucks said. "I would hope for a thoughtful, factual and analytical input from everyone who's concerned about the issue - the alcoholic beverage industry and from the general public - about how we best protect the public health and safety of Montanans in regards to alcohol consumption."
He said he hopes the discussion will help lead to some common ground and perhaps eventually lead to a new rule or a law.
Bucks' decision to reject the industry-proposed rule comes after elevated public concern and some high-profile cases in recent years when Montanans, ranging from high school students walking along a road to Highway Patrol officers, have been killed by drunken drivers. Some citizen groups and some legislators are to pushing to beef up Montana's DUI laws.
The Revenue Department's steps won praise from someone who opposed the proposed rule at the hearing in November.
"I'm very pleased," said Rebecca Sturdevant of Kalispell, representing Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "That's a positive step forward. They're asking for ideas from the community about how to improve things. That's promising."
Her son, Evan Schneider, was a state Highway Patrol officer killed by a drunken driver in the Flathead Valley in 2008.
She said the Revenue Department's own research shows most nearby states have stiffer penalties than Montana.
"If the consequences are greater, then they're more likely to change behaviors," Sturdevant said.
However, Ronna Alexander, executive director of the Montana Convenience Store Association, said she felt "sandbagged" by the Schweitzer administration.
Alexander said the 2009 Legislature was on the verge of passing a bill, similar to the rule, and one that her group supported. Someone from Gov. Brian Schweitzer's office asked the group to drop the bill and instead negotiate a rule with the Revenue Department, and the group agreed, she said.
"The bottom line is we feel a little bit betrayed or whatever because we were promised a deal was a deal, and now it's not," Alexander said. "We understand the emotion of the issue with driving under the influence and all of these horrendous things, but the issue we're dealing with is strictly sale to a minor. It specifically left out the over-served person."
She said the proposed rule didn't lower penalties but created a new scale for businesses that "were doing the right thing" by voluntarily training employees through a responsible alcohol sales and service course.
Neil Peterson, executive director of the Gaming Industry Association of Montana, said his group supports server training programs.
Revenue Director Bucks defended his decision to turn down the proposed rule, citing the overwhelming opposition of 225 people who testified or submitted comments against it and editorials in at least three major newspapers that criticized the rule. Meanwhile, only 10 businesses or industry groups that spoke up for it, he said.
"The department during my time here hasn't had a proposal with such widespread opposition," Bucks said. "We don't only look at the quantity, but we also look at the quality of the comments. Those who spoke against the proposed rule were very persuasive in terms of their concerns for the public health and safety."
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.