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Raising the bar

Montana tries to mandate alcohol server training

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Several Missoula bars are in trouble over alcohol service. The Badlander complex failed an underage-drinking sting for the third time in three years, so all five of its bars will be shut for four days in early June. Stockman's Bar and The Bodega, meanwhile, are defendants in a suit filed in January; a man who was badly beaten downtown in March 2010 says the bars were negligent for serving the "visibly intoxicated" men who attacked him.

Do bars like these need to be regulated more?

There's a bill now sitting on Gov. Brian Schweitzer's desk, Senate Bill 29, sponsored by Sen. Lynda Moss, D-Billings, that would mandate alcohol server training. The training is voluntary in Montana now, although the Badlander bars, Stockman's Bar, and The Bodega require it.

"It's just a no-brainer," Bodega owner Bob Manzer says of SB 29. "It's just something that needs to be done. Anybody responsible is going to say, 'I don't need drunks, so I don't serve them.' You don't need trouble. Trouble costs you money."

Of the 14 bills to come out of the Law and Justice Interim Committee's 2010 DUI study, six made it to Schweitzer's desk. Five became law. Whether or not SB 29 becomes the sixth, it stands apart from the rest as the only bill aimed at education and prevention.

Lisa Scates, a liquor education specialist with the Montana Department of Revenue, says she's amazed that they train so many servers who don't know that it's against the law to serve intoxicated people.

The Badlander complex of bars–the Savoy, the Badlander, the Palace, the Golden Rose, and the Central–will be closed for four days in early June for serving a minor. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • The Badlander complex of bars–the Savoy, the Badlander, the Palace, the Golden Rose, and the Central–will be closed for four days in early June for serving a minor.

"You can't just hit it all with enforcement," Scates says, and "you can't just hit it all with treatment. It's what we call the prevention triangle: You have to focus on education and prevention, treatment, and enforcement."

Yet Montana bars currently have wide choices for server training. They can get trainers through the state program, from one of four national programs, and from several private companies. According to the Liquor Control Board, 2,454 people have had alcohol server training in Missoula since 2004. That includes some but not all of the people who have been trained in private courses, Scates says.

Moss defended her bill near the close of this session, referring to a Joliet teen killed in an alcohol-related rollover as well as several other high-profile deaths in the state over the years. "We've had Montana state troopers die because of drunk drivers and individuals who are over-served," Moss told the Senate. "This is a bill that was carefully developed with a lot of consensus and the involvement of the industry."

The version of SB 29 that hit Schweitzer's desk isn't without its drawbacks. While it would mandate server training statewide, it would also eliminate the state's alcohol server training program—a provision Schweitzer tried to amend without success. That could diminish the pool of qualified trainers as well as the quality of the training.

National programs typically have between 25 and 35 trainers statewide, Scates says, while Montana currently has 410, all volunteers. The state program also can modify its curriculum every year, she says, while national server-training programs are updated "maybe once every five years." The current state program is better able to incorporate Montana trends, statistics, and changes to laws, Scates contends.

The Montana Tavern Association, a bar owners' organization, came out in favor of a server-training mandate in 2010. No industry wants to be "painted black" by allegations of irresponsibility, says MTA lobbyist Mark Staples. It's one thing to spot fake IDs, he says, and another to cultivate judgment. "You look at an ID, which you should, and they're either over 21 or they're not. Mistakes can be made, but there's a clear, bright standard... Determining who is intoxicated, who's been served to the point they should be served no more, is a discretion that requires a lot more training."

Some may criticize the MTA for supporting a measure to increase regulation of its own industry, Staples says, but ultimately this issue will come up in individual communities even if SB 29 fails. Already, mandated server training has been debated in Anaconda and Deer Lodge.

Staples says it's ironic and frustrating that the Missoula bars with recent problems, such as the shutdown and lawsuit, already require server training. "People can still make mistakes," he concludes.

Fake IDs are getting better, says The Bodega's Manzer. And, he says, "You can spot the common drunk—the loud guy, the guy that's on the prowl, the guy that can't stand up. But I've seen guys drink bucketsful and you wouldn't think they'd had anything."

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