SALT LAKE CITY — Poised to make changes to Utah's liquor laws, state lawmakers have more than the usual voices to steer their decisions.
Democrats have brought business people into the discussion who they say often go unheard in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Meantime, advocates for public health and safety have started to speak up, creating a website called stopalcoholderegulation.org.
"They haven't come to the public health side of this. That's the concerning thing," said Pat Bird, prevention manager for the Utah County Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment. "We've got to have everybody at the table."
Talk of changing how to manage Utah's state-controlled alcohol industry came on the heels of scathing legislative audits last year. The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control was found to be rife with mismanagement and the former executive director is accused of a felony for doing business with a company his son owns. The head of the state Department of Commerce is temporarily running the agency.
Several lawmakers will propose bills to deal with issues raised in the audits, and legislative leaders expect the measures to emerge in a week or so.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who often carries alcohol-related legislation, is working on a plan to restructure the agency, including how it's governed and to whom it reports. Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Provo, is looking at contracting out state-run stores, an idea some have loosely described as privatization.
Bird finds any form privatization or deregulation a bad idea.
"The private sector does not manage this well. This is a product that causes harm. It's not like milk or eggs," he said. "The private sector is sales-driven."
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, on Friday said three principles shape his thinking about alcohol policy: Whether a change could result in more drunken driving; whether minors would be exposed to alcohol consumption; and whether it would contribute to overconsumption.
When reminded that Utah has the lowest drunken driving rates in the nation, Waddoups said, "It's great if you don't happen to be the one in the accident. If you’re the only one in the state, it's a tragedy. It's a tragedy to you."
Policy changes to accommodate adults' responsible use of a legal product are open to debate, he said.
Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said he shares many of Waddoups' concerns. However, people in the hospitality business had expressed that "they weren't brought into the conversation" over policy changes enacted a year ago, he said.
To bring them in, Romero and House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, created what they called the DABC Review Committee comprised of people whose businesses interact with the state's alcohol industry.
"I guarantee you there is not another area in our government that we regulate and don’t seek input from those who are being regulated," Litvack said.
After several public meetings, the committee — co-chaired by retired Army Gen. Peter Cooke, former Salt Lake County auditor Jeff Hatch and Standard Optical CEO Steve Schubach — compiled a report it presented Friday. Two messages emerged from the report: alcohol is overregulated and the system needs to be managed with more competence.
Though the report cites many "outdated and counterproductive" rules that bring "unwelcome national attention" to the state, such as a prohibiting some classic cocktails or servers having to pour liquor out of customers' sight.
The report also outlines a structural reform plan and calls for more accountability and transparency.
The committee neither favors privatization nor abandoning Utah's "control" model, but supports a move toward becoming a "license" state.
It recommends lawmakers consider splitting DABC's regulatory and sales functions. An independent commission under the Utah Department of Commerce would continue to oversee licensing and rulemaking, while the "skilled" professionals would run the wholesale and retail operations and report directly to the governor.
State liquor outlets should be run more like a grocery or convenience store chain by people who know the retailing business, Hatch said.
Romero said he is pleased with the report and looks forward to turning its proposals into bills.
Bird, who coordinates stopalcoholderegulation.org and intends testify on Capitol Hill when alcohol-related legislation comes up, attended one of the committee's town hall meetings.
"Everybody on the board was business-oriented. They didn't bring anyone in who was public health and public safety oriented," he said. "This is no ordinary commodity."
Bird said increased availability brings not only more drinking but excessive drinking, which leads to a host of social ills that effect drinkers and non-drinkers.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with whom lawmakers often consult before altering alcohol policies, has held those concerns for years. It continues to focus on public health and safety issues.
While the LDS Church teaches its members to avoid alcohol altogether, it acknowledges that alcoholic beverages are available to the public. It continues to call for reasonable regulations to limit overconsumption, reduce impaired driving and work to eliminate underage drinking.
The Democrats' review committee also recognizes those concerns, and its report criticizes DABC for not being focused enough on education about those issues. Schubach said the committee favors expanding prevention efforts beyond the $1.5 million the agency reported spending last year.
Contributing: Marjorie Cortez
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