Bills gives governor more control over Utah alcohol department

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 22 2012 5:10 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A plan to reform the beleaguered Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control would put more oversight in the governor's hands.

It also attempts to "remove the profit motive" from the agency, said Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, adding that selling more alcohol should not be its goal.

"If we're going to have a DABC, it should be focused on control," he said.

Still, the proposal does not specifically address how alcohol is sold or how liquor licenses are issued in the state, but would restructure the agency's management.

"It will definitely change the culture at the DABC," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem.

Valentine and Wilcox are advancing two bills aimed at responding to legislative audits last year that found the department 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.

The head of the Department of Commerce is temporarily running the agency.

Wilcox said the plan is not anyone's "fantasyland version of where we wanted this to end up" but a compromise that would strengthen the department long term.

Valentine's bill, SB66, would replace the current five-member commission with seven members, divided into two three-person subcommittees over licensing and compliance, and operations and procurement, respectively. The governor would appoint a seventh member as chairman.

All of the commission's meetings and subcommittee meetings would be subject to Utah's open meetings law.

The governor also would select the DABC executive director from three names submitted by the commission.

Currently, the commission elects its own chairman and hires the executive director with Senate approval.

The bill would create a five-member audit committee within the agency, including the hiring of an auditor director. It also sets up a 12-member advisory board composed of state liquor license holders.

"This is a much stronger supervision model," Valentine said. "It took a significant amount of time to get it right. We think we have it right."

Wilcox's bill, HB354, calls for a committee within the Department of Public Safety to collect data in five areas — over-consumption, over-serving, underage drinking, DUI rates and alcohol-related abuse.

It also would require the DABC to remit money made from its markup on alcohol sales to the State Tax Commission rather than retain it as a department "slush fund," Wilcox said.

Although the bills could stand alone, Valentine said he believes both must pass to make the plan work.

Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said he was glad to see in Valentine's bill things Democrats have called for since last summer including gubernatorial oversight, an audit component and an advisory board. He and Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, assembled their own advisory committee last fall to gather input from the restaurant and hospitality industries.

The next step, he said, is to talk about laws regarding how alcohol is sold and licensed.

"Utahns have proven themselves to be responsible drinkers," Romero said, saying the state has one of the lowest DUI rates in the nation.

Romero has a bill to repeal some of the laws the Legislature passed last year, including removal of the so-called Zion curtain that separates alcohol servers from pouring drinks where patrons can see them.

"I think we overreacted and had legislative overreach in what we did last year," he said. "We should be allowing discussion on the availability of alcohol and recognizing the responsible drinking public."

Valentine and Romero said those talks could happen once DABC governance is in place.

Said Wilcox, "I think we'll be discussing alcohol policy for eternity."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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