HELENA — A lawmaker's speech railing against drunken driving reform — mocked mercilessly by political opponents — is no laughing matter to activists who say it perpetuates the state's dangerous boozy culture.
Bar owner Alan Hale said in a speech on the House floor this week that DUI laws are harmful to small businesses, implying people need to drive home after drinking.
Tough DUI laws "are destroying a way of life that has been in Montana for years and years," said the Republican from the rural town Basin, where a few hundred people live near the mountains of the Continental Divide.
Hale's speech was perhaps most surprising for its honesty. Until only recently, Montana had one of the most permissive drunken driving cultures in the country. Montanans could legally sip a beer while driving, and repeat DUI offenders tallied sixth and seventh offenses with little punishment.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving said statements like Hale's take the state back to those more dangerous times.
"His comments are completely out of sync with public safety and reality," said MADD activist Becky Sturdevant, who has worked for years to tighten state laws and is now on the cusp of one her biggest legislative victories. "I think Montana has a tough culture in that there's some validity in what he is saying. But I certainly don't think there's a majority of people."
Few politicians, even in Montana, dare to stand up these days against DUI reform. But Hale's comments perhaps reflected what others are privately thinking in a state that struggled mightily to outlaw drinking behind the wheel — a practice that was legal outside city limits until 2005 as long as the driver was not legally intoxicated.
Hale took the business angle.
"These DUI laws are not doing our small businesses in our state any good at all. They are destroying them," Hale said, talking about the long drives in rural areas to get to pubs. "They are the center of the communities. I'll guarantee you there's only two ways to get there: either you hitchhike, or you drive, and I promise you that they are not going to hitchhike."
He refused to comment on the issue Friday.
Hale is not the only lawmaker to push back against DUI reform in this legislative session.
Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, a Democrat, took issue with a proposal to strip driver's licenses from teens caught drinking, even if they're not driving at the time. He argued that the entire package of proposed DUI reform puts the Legislature on "the path of criminalizing everyone in Montana."
But overall, criticism of DUI regulations has been muted compared with past years.
Several recent high-profile drunken driving deaths have created momentum for changing the state's laws, which many argue make it too easy for repeat offenders to get behind the wheel again.
There is a slate of DUI measures before the Legislature this session to increase punishments for repeat offenders and set up a round-the-clock rehabilitation program. This comes after years of virtually ignoring the state's ranking at or near the top of per-capita drunken driving deaths.
One lawmaker who has been leading DUI reform even got caught drinking while driving this year — on the eve of his judiciary committee taking up the issue. Sen. Jim Shockley, a Republican planning to run for attorney general, was forced by GOP leaders to resign his chairmanship.
Shockley continues to carry a piece of the DUI reform — even though in 2003 he was a working-class hero in taking the lead to beat back an attempt to ban people from drinking in the driver's seat. It was relatively common at the time for many motorists to crack open a beer while coming home from work or a day of fishing.
Still, getting caught with an open beer simply results in a citation and a small fine — $51 in Shockley's case back in January.
Drinking and driving opponents say Hale's speech went way too far and now puts him in the minority as the state comes to grips with its Old West drinking and driving culture.
"The alcohol industry is very powerful in Montana but they are not stupid enough to encourage someone to say something like that out loud," MADD's Sturdevant said. "I think Hale's out there on the fringe. I don't think he represents anybody in the state except himself."