SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers on Wednesday overcame some misgivings for a state that heavily regulates alcohol by lifting a quota on the number of alcohol licenses available for restaurants.
The Legislature authorized 90 new licenses for restaurants, breaking a logjam in which all 918 available licenses were claimed under a population quota.
Gov. Gary Herbert and lawmakers said it was hindering business growth. More than 30 restaurant operators are on a waiting list for a license to serve beer and wine or liquor.
"This is about jobs," said Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville. Restaurant operators "need to know for a fact that a license exists" before spending money to open a place and hire staff, he said.
Herbert said more licenses will provide greater certainty in the marketplace.
Utah has long had tight controls on the serving of alcohol in a state dominated by the Mormon faith, which frowns on alcohol consumption. The Legislature's easing of quota limits came with funding for more enforcement of alcohol rules inside restaurants and more DUI patrols on state roadways.
License fees were raised by 10 percent to add four liquor-enforcement officers at the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, while the Utah Highway Patrol will add a dozen DUI patrols a week.
More restaurant licenses "doesn't necessarily mean more DUI offenses," Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, a proponent of tougher enforcement, said. "But we have some evidence of lax enforcement inside restaurants" that allow under-aged customers to order drinks.
Utah limits licenses allowing the sale of beer and wine at restaurants to one for every 8,373 residents, and licenses also allowing the sale of liquor to one for every 4,925 people, said Vicki Ashby, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The state has 340 of the limited restaurant licenses and 578 full-service licenses in circulation, Ashby said.
Just one limited license could become available this month based on the latest population figures tracked by the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, she said.
The Utah Legislature lifted the license quota with minimal opposition, voting 57-10 in the House of Representatives and 26-1 in the Senate.
Valentine cited state figures showing restaurants were responsible for most of 63 under-age drinking citations in the past 18 months, though other legislators questioned whether that was a significant number for a state with a population of 2.8 million.
A few legislators even questioned why Utah places a quota on drinking establishments.
"Why even have a limit?" asked Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. But he then argued for tough enforcement of drunken driving, public intoxication and under-age drinking.
"Our alcohol laws are way too complicated," said Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, an architect who said his work includes designing restaurants. Cox offered an amendment to nix higher license fees, but that was defeated.
Separately, lawmakers also plugged a $25 million gap in funding for public schools — the second of the two main items on the governor's agenda for Wednesday's special legislative session.
An accounting error forced the ouster of two state education officials who were blamed for under-estimating the number of students who will be enrolled in public schools after the summer break. The error miscalculated how much per-pupil student funding Utah will need and left a $25 million hole in a $3 billion budget.
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