Rep. Greg Hughes, already a veteran of an ethics battle, is charging into an even tougher legislative fight — liquor reform.
Hughes, R-Draper, a nondrinker, said Friday he'll carry GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s liquor reform bill — to be introduced perhaps as soon as next week into the 2009 Legislature — which includes the elimination of private club memberships to make the state more tourist-friendly. Currently, customers at Utah's equivalent of bars must fill out applications and pay a fee before they can drink.
Huntsman had quietly been searching for a GOP conservative legislator to carry his liquor reform ideas, but reportedly was turned down several times. The governor has already said he'd be willing to compromise by requiring electronic ID verification in private clubs, boosting owners' liability and even banning minors from the bar areas of restaurants.
Huntsman has yet to secure a sponsor in the Senate, although Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, will carry a bill reflecting the Senate's GOP caucus position.
Valentine said Friday his bill could end up reflecting what the governor wants, too, before the session is over.
So far, the Senate has been reluctant to consider loosening the state's liquor laws, although Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, has said he likes the idea of requiring electronic ID verification. Even the LDS Church, which has opposed what has been referred to as liquor by the drink, has expressed interest in electronic ID verification.
Hughes, who has been in the whirlwinds of legislative action before, is no stranger to controversy, including ethics hearings last fall for charges leveled against him by three House Democrats that were eventually dropped. And he'll likely see controversy again as he pushes Huntsman's proposal.
Hughes said his bill could still take several forms, with the main part of his bill requiring new electronic verification system at private clubs. In return, the establishments would no longer have to charge a membership fee or make guests fill out applications.
Even though the electronic verification machines can cost $800 or more, Hughes said he believes private club owners would gladly invest the money, in part because a reliable ID check could reduce their chances of serving underage drinkers.
Hughes said he was convinced to take on the alcohol reform fight after viewing just how thorough the new ID scanning process can be. Almost all current Utah licenses have a bar code on the back, which includes the owner's age, and many other states also have similar bar codes. Such ID's are hard to counterfeit.
"There are a few licenses that don't have the code, but they belong to much older Utahns," he said, who by their appearance would clearly be older than 21 years.
If a person did not have a license with a bar code, private club owners would have to manually register the guest, so that there would be a record of a drinker's appearance at a private club. That's important to anti-drinking groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which have warned that doing away with private club memberships would harm DUI investigations and shield clubs from Utah's dram-shop liability laws.
"We still are working with a concern over privacy" in the scanning of driver's licenses, said Hughes, such as an employee of a private club accessing the information to contact a customer.
And while Hughes doesn't see any reason for clubs to keep patron information for any length of time, there could be an effort to restrict the use of that information, such as not allowing it to be sold to solicitors, and mandating that it be routinely destroyed.
Or, if law enforcement wanted access to the information longer, for DUI investigations or for other police reasons, the information could be downloaded into state secure data systems, Hughes said.