Sprunger tackles liquor license system in hopes of boosting entrepreneurship
March 26—Flathead lawmakers have introduced bills related to alcohol during the legislative session, but a recent addition to the mix is already generating buzz.
Just last week, Rep. Courtney Sprunger, R-Kalispel, introduced House Bill 849, which would allow businesses to lease liquor licenses instead of buying outright. Sprunger calls it the Floating Liquor License Lease Bill.
Sprunger said the demand for restaurants and entertainment in Kalispell underscores the need for the legislation, which has its first hearing Monday in the House Business and Labor Committee.
“In our community, our county is growing much faster than our urban centers and there is pressure on those urban centers to provide services to everybody,” said Sprunger, working at an eatery in Flathead most of the year. Referring to the difficulty associated with landing on the table.
Her legislation would allow businesses to pay a fee to effectively rent a liquor license from the county without taking the step to buy it, a barrier that “slows and hinders economic growth,” Sprunger said. .
The bill would apply to cities and towns that grew by more than 5% between 2016 and 2021 and have an overlapping quota limit. All beverage licenses from no more than six counties may be used and will be awarded through a bidding system.
According to the Kalispell MLA the license cannot be sold or transferred.
Sprunger argued that the move would help aspiring entrepreneurs because Montana has a limited number of liquor licenses.
“The intent is to create common places of community like restaurants,” she said. “It’s beautiful because it’s crafted for Kalispell.”
Some worry that even though the licenses are non-transferable, the law will still harm businesses that have purchased liquor licenses.
“It basically reverses the rules of the game and the rules everyone else is playing by,” said John Iverson, director of government affairs for the Montana Tavern Association.
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Iverson said the existing quota system is already based on population and his data does not support the claim that the Flathead Valley needs more liquor licenses.
On the other hand, the law has garnered a lot of support from Flathead business owners.
Lorraine Clarno, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, said they are offering their full support for HB 849, as it will help create an 18-hour downtown core.
According to Clarno, the current quota system, based on resident population, does not work for communities like Kalispell, which serves as a regional business center with a high tourism market.
“We believe this bill will be a strong benefit to our city,” Clarno said.
Gabe Merriman, owner of Kalispell’s Bias Brewing, said the current quota system isn’t working because the per-capita liquor license system doesn’t account for county growth or tourism.
“You can see the optics of Kalispell. There’s not a lot going on,” Merriman said. “There aren’t enough places to eat and drink. We could all benefit from more licenses available.”
Mariemann, a board member of the Kalispell Downtown Association and Kalispell Business Improvement District, indicated that several other restaurants in the area support the legislation.
The brewery owner argued that the change would not devalue existing liquor licenses, but rather increase their value. These licenses will increase property value and aid in economic development for other nearby businesses. The license cannot be obtained elsewhere; It belongs to the county.
“It’s not turning the whole system on its head. It’s just awarding licenses to counties with more growth,” Marieman said.
Other legislators from Flathead are also steering alcohol-related legislation through the statehouse. Representative Tony Brockman, R-Kalispel, currently has four bills in the Legislature dealing with alcohol; Two of which Gov. Greg Gianforte has already signed into law.
The first, House Bill 48, gives licensed distilleries and wineries the opportunity to apply for and operate additional building space for storage. According to Brockman, breweries in Montana already enjoy this right.
“It creates parity across all three winemaking types that we have in the state,” Brockman said. HB 48 was signed into law by Gianforte on March 16, along with House Bill 50.
HB 50 is a cleanup bill, according to Brockman. The intention is to fix the law from 2021 that allows some liquor licensees to offer curbside pickup of alcoholic beverages, a practice that became popular during the pandemic.
House Bill 49, sponsored by Brockman, awaits the governor’s signature. The representative said that this is also a cleaning bill. Current law requires agreements between beer wholesalers and importers to be submitted to the Department of Revenue, but does not specify who needs to file the agreement.
Brockman said the law makes it clear that the beer wholesaler is responsible for delivering that paperwork to the department.
Finally, Brockman introduced House Bill 578, which is currently pending in the Senate after passing through the House. The bill allows packaged alcohol products to be sold for off-site consumption six times a year at industry events. Distillers and other businesses can apply for permits and sell their products while participating in industry events.
Other legislators are also juggling the liquor law. Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, is the sponsor of House Bill 455, which seeks to legalize the retail sale of premade Jell-O shots in the state.
Rape. Terry Falk, R-Kalispell, has seen two alcohol bills signed into law. House Bill 69 amends laws relating to agency liquor stores generally and House Bill 70 amends laws relating to renewal of liquor licenses.
Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at [email protected] or 758-4459.