Utah lawmakers overhaul state liquor agency, shoot down proposed policy changes
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — State liquor stores won't open on holidays. No state alcohol commissioners will have to be drinkers. State-issued liquor license quotas aren't going up. Small wineries and breweries won't be allowed to increase production. Restaurateurs won't be permitted to sample wine.
Those are among the alcohol-related proposals the Utah Legislature shot down during its 45-day session that ends late Thursday.
Though imbibers won't see much difference in the way liquor is bought and sold in the state, the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control will undergo an extensive overhaul.
Lawmakers approved two bills to restructure the agency in the wake of legislative audits last year that found it fraught with mismanagement. The result is more oversight coming from the governor's office.
Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, said SB66 will help "fix an agency that has run amok."
While Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, applauds the administrative changes, he said failing to address sales and consumption policies undermines economic development. He said Utah's hospitality industry would be more attractive to new businesses if liquor laws were more in line with other states.
House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, said those discussions are for another day.
"We like to take our time on these issues," she said. "We don't want to make rushed decisions."
Rep. Craig Frank, R-Pleasant Grove, made a last-minute attempt to insert a study privatizing the state-run liquor business. "This discussion needs to be had in the open and in a comprehensive way," he said.
While his colleagues don't disagree, they said SB66 isn't the vehicle for that study and voted it down.
"This bill has nothing to do with privatization," said Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden.
SB66 expands the state liquor commission to seven members from five with the governor appointing the chairman. It splits the commission into subcommittees, one overseeing licensure and compliance, the other operations and procurement. The commission previously appointed its own chairman.
The governor also will select the DABC's executive director from three names submitted by the commission.
In addition, the new law creates a five-member audit committee within the department and a 15-member advisory panel composed of liquor license holders.
The measure subjects all DABC meetings, including those of the newly formed subcommittees, to Utah's open meetings law.
A companion bill, HB354, also provides guidance to the commission as it makes alcohol policy.
It establishes a committee in the Department of Public Safety to collect data in five areas — over-consumption, over-serving, underage drinking, DUI rates and alcohol-related abuse.
Wilcox, the bill sponsor, said information in those areas has not been gathered in the past so a lot of decisions were made on assumptions.
The measure also requires 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 that will remove the profit motive from the department.
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