PROVO — His bill increasing the number of liquor licenses for restaurants hasn't been drafted yet, but Sen. John Valentine is already quietly building support with key stakeholders, including the LDS Church.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a stakeholder in liquor legislation in this state," Valentine said Wednesday. "The church has had a place at the table as we have discussed these issues."
So do a number of other groups with an interest in how the state controls the sale of alcohol, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Utah Restaurant Association.
Getting the support of those groups is how the Orem Republican helped pass legislation two years ago, eliminating the state's private club system, one of the most significant changes to Utah's liquor laws in decades.
"If the 2009 session taught me anything, it's the fact that you have to have a very open discussion with the stakeholders in this area," he said. "Without that, you get distrust."
This time around, Valentine said the stakeholders have "all told me the concepts were at least reasonable and they would withhold final decision until they saw the bill."
Just as with the private club bill, the LDS Church is not expected to oppose legislation next session making more restaurant liquor licenses available as long as more enforcement measures are also considered.
LDS spokesman Scott Trotter said "the church meets with people on a variety of issues. While we have not taken a position on any possible upcoming legislation our interest in alcohol-related legislation is clear: we are concerned with over-consumption, impaired driving, and underage drinking."
Valentine's proposal to alter the state's population-based quota system for liquor licenses to allow for more restaurant licenses isn't likely to be as controversial as the elimination of private clubs.
Valentine wants to shift some of the unused beer tavern licenses to the full- and limited-service restaurant categories. He's also looking at allowing restaurant liquor license holders to sell their licenses to qualified buyers, as well as some enforcement measures he's not ready to discuss.
The state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission currently has eight applicants for the dozen full-service restaurant licenses available, out of the 557 allowed under the quota system.
But the DABC has nine applicants for the five available restaurant licenses limited to beer and wine service, out of the 311 allowed. At the same time, less than half of the 95 beer tavern licenses available are being used.
Valentine said restaurant patrons typically drink in moderation. At a tavern, he said, there's seldom anything else on the menu other than beer and that can lead to overconsumption.
"We have fewer problems in restaurants," he said. "It's a combination of the way it's presented and the fact the cliental is there for dinner and a drink, but not in there for two or three drinks."
Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said restaurants sell less than 3 percent of all of the alcohol sold in the state.
"Really a restaurant is the best place to sell alcohol because you have to buy food to get a drink," Sine said. "You can go into a tavern and just drink. You can't do that in a restaurant."
Sine said she can support Valentine's proposal and believes it is likely to pass next session, but raised concerns about allowing restaurant liquor licensees to be sold.
"In this economy, we wouldn't want to say to everybody who wants a licenses, 'You have to buy it,' " or wait until one becomes available, she said.
Sine and DABC Commission Chairman Sam Granato both would like to see the quota system on liquor licenses scrapped.
"The need is very acute. We need to get licensees. We know we have a down economy and we want to create jobs," Granato said. "I think the quota system really needs to go away."
Granato, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate seat won by Republican Mike Lee, said it will be hard to turn away some of the applicants for licenses at next week's liquor commission meeting.
"It's a little heart-wrenching to look at these people who have their life's ambition, if you will, in a dream to create a business and they're told, 'Sorry, there's no room for you.' That's not the American way."
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