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Plans to overhaul liquor agency gaining speed, legislative leaders say

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 14 2011 6:20 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — After suffering a major hangover, Utah's beleaguered Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control appears to be in for a major overhaul.

Senate President Michael Waddoups and House Speaker Becky Lockhart said Wednesday that lawmakers in both legislative bodies plan to propose legislation to address the agency's troubles.

"Obviously, it needs to be restructured," Lockhart, R-Provo, said on Salt Lake Community College's monthly news program "Capitol Voices."

Whether that's removing oversight from the current five-member commission and placing it with the governor or another state department remains to be seen.

"That's the big question," Lockhart said. "There are legislators looking at all different ways of doing that, a full-time commission, part-time commission like we have now.

"We had a full-time commission years ago and they all got indicted on criminal things, so that's not necessarily a solution. It may be, but we've got to look at all that."

Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, has spent the past several months putting a proposal together, and it's gaining momentum in the Senate.

"I am actively working on a restructure of the DABC," Valentine said, adding he has met with legislative attorneys, the governor's office and others. "I don't think we have any agreement yet on how to approach it."

DABC came under fire after legislative audits found it had been "incompetently managed" and accused the former executive director of committing a felony by doing business with a company owned by his son. The allegation is under investigation by the Utah Attorney General's Office. Currently, the head of the Department of Commerce is temporarily running the agency.

Waddoups said on the SLCC program that Valentine is looking at splitting oversight of the agency's operational side and the compliance and licensing side.

"I am very interested in that, yes," Valentine said after being contacted Wednesday. "To say that I have a model yet that fleshes out those two issues, no. Those are two major issues that have to be reviewed in any restructure in the DABC."

Valentine said he also hopes to address the culture that allowed DABC to act above the law and governance or who's responsible.

While the Senate is more focused on governance of the agency, House members are "looking more into the privatization-type issue," Lockhart said. "Do we need to go to a more package agency-type model?"

The state operates 42 full-service retail stores open to the public, and two club stores that only service licensees. There are also 67 independently owned and operated package agencies — small retail liquor outlets operated privately under contract with the department.

Although Lockhart used the word "privatization," she conceded the state won't relinquish control of alcohol.

"I don't see the Legislature giving that completely up. But I do think there is a lot of momentum and a lot of activity around this idea of contractual agreements in order to do the selling," she said.

Consultants hired to draft a new DABC business plan recently suggested the state look at allowing grocery stores to sell liquor.

To that notion, Lockhart said, "Probably not."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy

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