Courtney Baker, a University of New England dental student, sings “Jessie’s Girl” during karaoke night Wednesday at the Old Port Tavern in Portland. A legislator hopes her bill undoes an archaic law that bars dancing while singing karaoke at some establishments. Staff photo by Derek Davis

AUGUSTA — It’s harder to keep the beat if you can’t dance while you sing, but current Maine law prohibits dancing at a bar or restaurant licensed to sell alcohol without a permit for live entertainment.

Rep. Beth Turner, R-Burlington, says the archaic law is preventing people from getting their groove on when they step up to the microphone during a night of karaoke.

Rep. Beth Turner says, “What seems like a very funny, funny bill in the title is really a serious thing as far as cutting a layer of government.”

Turner is hoping a bill she has proposed will turn people footloose while removing an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy from an industry that’s already closely regulated in Maine.

She said she learned of the problem from a restaurant owner in the Penobscot County town of Chester who wanted to have a karaoke night to boost business.

The restaurant, which sells beer and wine, was told by state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations inspectors that it needed an amusement permit from the town and an inspection from the state Fire Marshal’s Office to have live entertainment on site, including dancing karaoke singers.

That wouldn’t be a problem in places such as Portland, where such permits are easy enough to get. But the small rural town doesn’t even have an ordinance to regulate amusements. Such an ordinance would have to be created and approved at town meeting, even though town officials said they wouldn’t charge anything because the demand for such permits would be limited to one or two businesses.

Keith Cole of South Portland sings karaoke at the Old Port Tavern, which has a live-entertainment permit. Without a permit, breaking out into a “Happy Birthday” song could technically be breaking the law, a legislator says. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“Under the current law, that little town would have to write an ordinance, have a public hearing and have the town approve this through a town meeting for zero dollars,” Turner said.

MUNICIPALITIES SUPPORT CHANGE

Her bill, L.D. 30, as amended in the committee, would remove a provision in state law requiring municipalities to issue amusement permits. Towns that already issue them could continue to do so, and officials could decide to issue them in the future. Cities like Portland, Bangor and Lewiston that already have established ordinances requiring permits for live entertainment would not have to make any changes, Turner said.

It’s just a routine part of doing business at places such as Old Port Tavern, one of many bars in Portland where would-be rock stars can sing and dance without breaking the law.

Turner’s bill gained support from the Maine Municipal Association, a group that represents towns and cities.

Association lobbyist Geoff Herman, who testified in support of the measure at a legislative hearing, said some city officials had concerns about unregulated karaoke, but most of the association’s members felt the law change would be acceptable.

Shad Hall of Gray sings along to “Red Solo Cup” during karaoke night at the Old Port Tavern on Wednesday. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“A few of the members of our 70-member Legislative Policy Committee expressed some level of concern with the proposal, providing the observation that karaoke events are capable of generating the same types of impacts that live performance events generate,” Herman’s written testimony stated. “With that being said, the strong majority of the municipal officials responding to the survey either voted to support L.D. 30 outright or take no position on the bill on the grounds that the change in law is relatively inconsequential.”

CUTTING A LAYER OF GOVERNMENT

Turner said her bill, which was endorsed unanimously Wednesday by the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, doesn’t remove any fire safety requirements, including an inspection by the Fire Marshal’s Office.

She said under current mandate, even somebody breaking out into a “Happy Birthday” song could technically be breaking the law if a restaurant or bar didn’t have an amusement permit.

“It strips a state mandate, basically,” Turner said. “So what seems like a very funny, funny bill in the title is really a serious thing as far as cutting a layer of government, and I think everybody is about that.”

Turner also said the bill doesn’t serve any of her own self-interests. She doesn’t step up to the mic much herself.

“I have never done karaoke,” she said.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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