SALT LAKE CITY — The chairman of the Legislature's Business and Labor Interim Committee said Wednesday he's working on a way to increase the number of restaurant liquor licenses available in the state. But he wants to do it without increasing the negative impacts of alcohol.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, declined to be specific about what changes he'll propose at next month's meeting to alter the population-based quota system used to set limits on the number of liquor licenses.
"There are all kinds of possibilities. We haven't decided yet," Valentine said after the committee meeting, which included testimony that a major restaurant chain would open 12 steakhouses across the state if licenses were available.
The committee also heard that only one full-service restaurant license is currently available and that last month, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission turned away 15 applicants seeking to put beer, wine and liquor on their menus.
"There are not enough licenses for restaurants, an area where there is significant demand," Valentine said, adding he believes he can balance public safety concerns with the economic development benefits that more licenses will bring.
Valentine is the lawmaker behind many of the significant changes to the state's liquor laws in recent years, including the end of private clubs, which had been Utah's version of bars.
Wednesday he stressed the state's interest in keeping drunken driving rates low, acknowledging the impact additional licenses could have in Utah.
"The bottom line is a wetter environment would yield a higher DUI rate," Valentine said, citing federal studies about the societal impacts associated with allowing easier access to alcohol.
But echoes of arguments heard in this year's legislative session were in place at Wednesday's hearing, as supporters of change cited economic need.
Steve Bogden, managing director of Coldwell Banker's commercial real estate arm, said the same restaurant group that owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden wants to open 12 LongHorn Steakhouses in Utah.
"This is an economic development question, it really is. This is about jobs," Bogden told the committee. He said the restaurants are projecting $40 million in sales and $2 million paid in taxes.
Bodgen said customers at such restaurants don't bring their families in for a meal and end up going "out of control" while driving home. "We need to make a change," he said.
Attorney Catherine Lake testified she represents a number of clients interested in opening restaurants in Utah but they are staying away from the state because of the liquor license situation.
Valentine said the state has a long history of quotas, first adopting limits on licenses two years after the end of Prohibition in 1933. A study produced by legislative staff showed several other Western states, including California, have license quotas.
Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, said that California makes a license available for every 2,000 or so residents, compared to one license for about every 5,000 Utahns.
"That is an arbitrarily high number," Davis said, calling for that portion of the quota formula to be reduced "so we can accommodate the growth of small businesses."
Adjusting the formula is one of the possible changes to the quota system. Others include awarding a single license to a restaurant chain and making more licenses available in resort communities that serve tourists.
Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, questioned whether opening more chain restaurants that serve liquor in his community would affect consumption.
"It just seems like a bit of a dichotomy that we have restaurants that want to come in" but can't because their business model includes offering bar service and licenses aren't available, he said.
Another committee member, Rep. Brian Doughty, D-Salt Lake, said he and other restaurant customers who drink limit their alcohol consumption.
"My perspective is it's not full-service restaurants that are the problem," Doughty said. "The problems come from bars and taverns."
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