HELENA — Citing alcohol sales data, Gov. Brian Schweitzer has called state lawmakers some of "the biggest boozers," just as the legislature is preparing to arrive in Helena to start what already promised to be a tough session.
Schweitzer's comments, predictably, are not sitting well with legislators.
The governor, who for years has lampooned the lawmakers for eating "thick steaks and old whiskey" bought by lobbyists, upped the ante recently at a press conference discussing tax revenue.
State stats show liquor sales up
He pointed out Department of Revenue data showed wholesale liquor sales go up in Helena when the Legislature is in session. The governor also noted that alcohol sales tracked by the agency dropped off slightly everywhere else in the state while the Legislature is in session.
"These are the ones that are the biggest boozers," said Schweitzer, a Democrat.
Of course, a lot more people than just lawmakers are in Helena when the Legislature meets every other year from January through April. Hundreds of lobbyists and interest groups come and go. And thousands of citizens testify at the Capitol on bills.
All of those people are conceivable staying in town for dinner and drinks.
Booze sales up 24 percent during session
The Department of Revenue said wholesale sales, which reflect what stores expect to sell to bars and retail customers, increased a whopping 24 percent from January through March in 2009 when the Legislature was last in session.
"The January through March wholesale sales coincide with the primary time period that liquor consumption in Helena is affected by the session," Department of Revenue spokeswoman Cynthia Piearson wrote in an e-mail.
Lawmakers don't like gov.'s comments
But lawmakers were not entertained by the way Schweitzer connected the increase to the legislators.
"I am quite sure that 150 lawmakers don't account for a 24 percent increase in liquor sales. Stop and think about the thousands of people that come in during those four months," said Republican Rep. Walt McNutt of Sidney. "He is taking a pretty cheap shot there."
To be sure, there are certainly times where lobbyists and others wine and dine lawmakers.
One high profile incident last session saw biotech giant Monsanto take most of a Senate committee out to dinner to the Montana Club, paid for by a related trade group, right before those lawmakers were set to make a decision on a farming bill opposed by the company. The bill was promptly shot down.
And there have been several cases in the past of lawmakers getting charged with drinking and driving while in session.
Lobbyists drink, too
Schweitzer acknowledged it's not just lawmakers coming to town that account for the increase in alcohol sales, and said his original comment did not mean the lawmakers alone were responsible for the increase. But he noted the largest month over month increase in sales came in March, after lawmakers have gotten settled into town.
"By the time they get to figure out which lobbyist is buying, it really gets going," Schweitzer said in subsequent a phone interview.
Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said lawmakers in Helena are largely there because they want to make a difference.
"The governor's comment is unfortunately disrespectful and it is disappointing," Essmann said. "The next session of the Legislature has serious issues before it and we are going to focus on those issues and not the governor's comments."
Sen. Dave Lewis, a Helena Republican who will chair the influential finance committee, was not happy with Schweitzer calling lawmakers the "biggest boozers"
'We work very hard'
"That is outrageous. We work very hard," said Lewis.
Lewis, who has been around the Capitol building in different capacities for decades, said 40 years ago was a hard-drinking time. But he said he does not see that anymore.
"He is trying to make the connection that the legislators are drinking all that liquor," Lewis said. "I can't believe he would even say that."