Belgrade cheers changes to liquor license laws
December 28, 2017
By Freddy Monares | Chronicle Staff Writer
A bill that passed during the special legislative session is expected to create 11 new liquor licenses in the next four years that will stay in Belgrade.
In fiscal year 2018 the bill is expected to bring in roughly $2.5 million to the state’s general fund, according to a fiscal note attached to the bill.
The legislation stems from the floating of liquor licenses from smaller municipalities to bigger cities like Bozeman, Helena and Kalispell. That was because cities like Bozeman and Belgrade were grouped in the same jurisdiction, allowing licenses to float freely between the two.
The new law draws a line between the two cities, and makes Belgrade its own jurisdiction for licenses. New liquor permits would now have to remain in the area they were distributed in.
The legislation also allows licenses that have already been doled out by the state to float freely between the two cities, grandfathering them into the old law for 12 years.
Belgrade Mayor Russell Nelson said he wanted to see that 12-year float period extended.
“I don’t want to force people in Belgrade to make a decision (to keep their business in the city),” he said, and added, “It’s certainly worth more in Bozeman than in Belgrade.”
Nelson said he worked with the Legislature to try and get a similar version of the bill passed during the regular session. He said the passage of the legislation was like an early Christmas gift for the city.
Nelson said the new law isn’t going to bring new business to the area overnight, but he is happy that legislators moved forward on the topic.
“I don’t believe it is a cure all, but it does give us an opportunity to have licenses to open ventures up in Belgrade that entrepreneurs wish to do,” he said.
The bill does sunset the competitive bidding process at the end of 2023. Nelson said he thinks that was done so the Legislature would revisit the new system of auctioning licenses.
Debra Youngberg, executive director of the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce, said the new legislation would keep liquor licenses in the city.
“It’s going to be good for Belgrade because it’s going to allow us to have more liquor licenses,” she said.
Youngberg said the licenses aren’t attached to any sort of gaming permits, easing any concerns that this would attract more casinos to the area. She said she didn’t have anything against bars, but the city needed help attracting restaurants to serve the needs of the community.
“We are really lacking in nice restaurants that can have alcohol,” Youngberg said.
Montana has one of the “weirdest systems” when it comes to doling out the liquor licenses, she said. The laws are like no other state and they’re confusing.
“I think that the Legislature realized that the system is kind of broke, and this is kind of a nice Band-Aid,” she said.
Both Nelson and Youngberg said they would like to see some slight changes to the code, but were overall happy with the outcome.
Government Affairs Director for the Montana Tavern Association John Iverson said if new licenses weren’t bought up by the market they would sit on a shelf, so to speak. That means entrepreneurs looking to open up restaurants in the area can pay a flat fee to the state for a license.
But Iverson said he doesn’t see that happening in Belgrade because the city is experiencing a boom in population.
“I believe that the community is growing, there’s anticipation of more growth and this would be more conducive to more restaurants,” he said.
Bozeman Republican Rep. Bruce Grubbs introduced a similar bill during the regular session to deal with the floating license issue. That bill didn’t make it out of committee. Legislators cited the fix seemed like a local fix for Belgrade, rather than a statewide issue.
During the special legislative session, and in light of budget shortfalls, Gov. Steve Bullock requested the bill as a way to fill a state deficit.
Great Falls Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick sponsored SB 5 during the special session. Grubbs sponsored the bill when it was sent to the House.
Freddy Monares can be reached at 406-582-2630, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.