SALT LAKE CITY — Utah House members expressed frustration Thursday over the Senate driving alcohol policy in the state, particularly its resistance to taking down the so-called "Zion curtain" in restaurants.
"I'm tired of explaining that to people who are not members of the same church I am," Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan, said of the 7-foot high barriers separating the dining and alcohol pouring areas.
The House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would have done away with a law requiring restaurants to shield their customers from liquor displays and drink mixing, but it ran into a wall in the Senate.
"It's not a two-way street," said Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield.
House and Senate members locked horns over several liquor bills, but just hours before the legislative session ended, they rolled provisions from other bills into and passed HB228.
"This isn't everything that we wanted, but it does solve some of those issues that have come up," said Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, whose original bill would have removed what he calls the Zion wall.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who carries much of the major alcohol legislation, said he's concerned about changing the atmosphere in restaurants. He said they should remain family-friendly and not encourage drinking.
"It was a good compromise. We gave a lot. They gave a lot," Valentine said.
HB228 creates a "master" liquor license that a restaurant chain could obtain to cover all of its outlets rather than having to get permits for each one.
It removes the uncertainty for big chains as to whether liquor licenses would be available under Utah's quota system, Valentine said, conceding it provides for more restaurants to serve alcohol.
To offset that, the bill provides more enforcement of alcohol policy, including a new position in the attorney general's office to handle violations.
Fines for restaurants caught serving alcohol to minors also will increase. A first offense would run $1,500, a second $3,000 and a third $10,000. Restaurants may also have their liquor licenses suspended as part of the penalty.
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, said the state is headed in the wrong direction with it's alcohol policy, toward more outlets.
"If we turn a blind eye to the social costs of alcohol, we're kidding ourselves," Draxler said, adding the problems aren't coming from responsible drinkers.
The Utah chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving favors retaining the barrier.
"I can tell you kids are already overexposed to alcohol. We need to limit their exposure because underage drinking is a devastating, high-risk activity," said Art Brown, chapter president.
Wilcox said there's no evidence to show that the wall reduces underage drinking.
The law also isn't applied evenly, he said, because restaurants that opened before 2009 weren't required to build a wall. It especially hurts small, locally owned restaurants that have limited seating capacity, he said.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he shares concerns about DUIs, underage drinking and excessive drinking, but he doesn't see the barriers having any connection.
"Until that is demonstrated, I'm not in support of the 'Zion curtain,'" King said, calling it not only weird but unjustifiable.