Utah has a legitimate interest in guarding against the overconsumption of alcohol, with all its attendant costs to society. However, today's special session of the state Legislature, called primarily to consider increasing the quota for state liquor licenses, is not a threat to that interest.
Gov. Gary Herbert called the session because the lack of available liquor licenses has been seen as an impediment to business growth in some parts of the state. Utah's population continues to grow, attracting many new residents and visitors looking for reasonable access to the responsible consumption of a legal product, which coincides with the state's guiding philosophy on the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Lawmakers will consider a bill drafted by Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, to add 50 full-service licenses for all types of alcohol and 40 limited-service licenses for beer and wine. All 90 permits would be granted to restaurants. The bill also would increase the fee for these licenses by 10 percent from the current $2,000 for a full-service permit and $750 for limited service.
The state would use the fee increase to step up its monitoring of compliance and to increase DUI enforcement, both of which make sense when adding to the available sources of alcohol sales.
Utah's long-standing policy on controlling alcohol sales has been to allow responsible adults reasonable access to such beverages but to limit overconsumption and underage drinking. That policy has served the state well, despite the criticisms of some who say it flies in the face of an overall political philosophy in the state that favors the free market. Because of alcohol's effects on judgment and coordination, as well as the devastating impact it can have on families and public safety when abused, the state has a moral obligation to treat it differently from other products. Ironically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Task Force on Community Preventative Services has recommended states regulate alcohol sales in a way that sounds remarkably similar to what Utah already has in place. It is a system that works and that keeps the many people in Utah who choose not to drink, as well as those who responsibly drink, relatively safe from the adverse effects of others' abuses.
The proposed increase in permits, especially when combined with the extra money for enforcement and prevention, would not pose much risk to public safety. Restaurants, it should be noted, are not typically sources for underage drinking or over-consumption. They tend to be places where responsible adults who choose to drink do so in moderation.
Today's session also will deal with a $25 million shortfall in the State office of Education, brought on by an accounting error, as well as several other minor technical issues. As with the addition of liquor licenses for restaurants, these should not pose any concerns for Utahns.