SALT LAKE CITY — More Utah restaurants would be permitted to serve alcohol under a legislative proposal aimed at meeting changes in market conditions.
But Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who is proposing several changes to state liquor laws, said he's not trying to make it easier to drink.
"My view is it is better to serve alcohol with food than it is to serve alcohol just by itself," he said Friday. "That's why we're pushing for alcohol in restaurants as a higher priority than alcohol in taverns."
Valentine's proposal, which hasn't been drafted as a bill yet, would adjust Utah's liquor license quota system to allow for 40 new restaurant permits — 25 limited-service for beer and wine only and 15 full-service.
Earl Dorius, Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control compliance officer, said the state can't meet the current demand for restaurant liquor licenses.
Just this week, 12 applicants with sound business plans vied for two available limited-service permits, he said. Some restaurants have had to wait as long as four months for a license. Meanwhile, requests for tavern licenses, which allow only beer to be served, have plummeted.
DABC bases the number of licenses it issues on population. With census data showing slower population growth than estimated, the state currently exceeds the number allowed by law.
Valentine said his bill would preserve the current number, while adding the new restaurant licenses.
Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said 40 new licenses is a start but falls far short of what's needed to achieve the economic prosperity Gov. Gary Herbert talked about in his State of the State speech this week. Sine said Utah should seriously look at giving a license to every establishment that wants one.
"Why would we want to limit any possibility or opportunity for entrepreneurs to come here?" she said.
Whenever lawmakers have made major changes to the state's liquor laws as it did two years ago in doing away with private clubs requiring memberships, it has been with the blessing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I've been meeting with them, and hopefully they're going to come along," Valentine said.
LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said the church regularly meets with people on a variety of issues.
“While we have not taken a position on any possible upcoming legislation, our interest in alcohol-related legislation is clear: we are concerned with over-consumption, impaired driving, and underage drinking,” he said.
One of the goals of the legislation is to allow "free market" forces to work, Valentine said.
Should a restaurant be sold, the license could be sold with the property. Under current law, the license goes back to DABC when a sale occurs, leaving new owners standing in line for one.
The plan would also allow licenses to be sold individually, provided the new owner opens for business within 30 days.
Hotels would be allowed to provide room service of alcohol as single drinks, rather than have to sell the entire bottle as current law requires.
Valentine said the changes represent less regulation but remain in line with the state's core alcohol policy principles to ensure public safety, curb underage drinking and over consumption and enforceability.
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, also introduced a bill this week to recalculate the quota system based on new population figures. A House committee gave HB42 a favorable recommendation.