Montana may be entering the late stages of an identity crisis, thanks to a pair of culture-busting bills passed in Helena last week. First, lawmakers banned smoking in all public buildings in the state, including 1,700 or so taverns. The days of dusty Montana ranch hands pulling up stools at the local watering hole and lighting up cowboy killers will soon be a thing of the past…in about four years, anyway.
As if that wasn’t enough to dent Montana’s rough-and-tumble self-image, legislators on Friday finally passed an open container ban that meets federal guidelines. That’s right: Montana will soon fall off the list of last best places you can (legally) crack a Bud while motoring the byways of the Great American West.
But not everyone is struggling to come to grips with the coming upheaval. In fact, groups on all sides of the issues are less than thrilled with either bill.
Bill Muhs, a public policy liaison with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), is…well, mad that the lege passed a watered-down version of what groups like MADD were hoping for. Offending drivers face a $100 fine if caught with an open container, not the $500 penalty that many wanted. Even worse, the offense won’t show up on the driver’s record.
“The bill still makes it illegal, so that’s a start, but we’re disappointed that [the law] lacks any kind of criminalization,” Muhs says.
And the smoking ban hardly has anti-smoking groups cheering in the streets. Tavern and casino owners aren’t too happy about it, either.
Casino and tavern owner Dave Campbell says he’s concerned that truckers who once stopped for seven or eight hours at his truck stop will henceforth plan their routes around layovers in smoker-friendly states.
“We see it all the time,” Campbell says. “Even now with the high cigarette prices, we’ll hear customers say ‘I’m going to Spokane this weekend, does anybody need some smokes?’”
Meanwhile, Kristin Page Nei, Montana government relations director for the American Cancer Society, says her organization did not support this version of the bill because it exempts bars and casinos for four years and preempts local governments from passing their own regulations during that period.
“We feel bar and casino employees shouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens,” says Nei, adding that the group will support implementation of the bill, and plans to educate tavern and casino operators like Campbell on how to comply before the ban kicks in.
“I don’t think you can put a price on public health,” Nei says. “If I were [Campbell], I’d be more worried about my employees’ health than losing money.”