Utah's bar owners have filed an initiative petition that would do away with private club laws requiring drinkers to fill out applications and pay membership fees.

The initiative petition, filed with the state on Thursday by the Utah Hospitality Association, would put the issue before voters in the 2010 general election if enough signatures can be gathered statewide within the next 12 months.

That isn't soon enough, though, for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

"The governor has advocated getting rid of the private-club designation for a long time, so he thinks it would be more expedited to do it through legislation rather than wait until 2010," Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said Friday.

Like a majority of state legislators, Huntsman is a Republican and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members don't drink alcohol. But the governor has long talked about changing the state's liquor laws to make Utah more tourist-friendly.

Shortly after Huntsman was elected four years ago, his own transition team recommended ending the requirements placed on patrons of private clubs.

He has overhauled the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Board with new appointments that included a member of his transition team, Park City lawyer Gordon Strachan.

Last session, lawmakers went along with the governor's proposal to boost the amount of alcohol in most mixed drinks. The legislation also eliminated most sidecars, or extra shots of alcohol, and will move flavored malt beverages from grocers shelves to state liquor stores.

And now that he's running for re-election with a high approval rating, Huntsman sounds ready to tackle even tougher liquor issues.

"He thinks it would be beneficial to the tourism industry and the economy of the state to get rid of this confusing designation," Roskelley said. That could happen as soon as the 2009 Legislature, she said.

The LDS Church would be among the organizations contacted about any change to the law, Roskelley said.

"Whenever we're talking about any issue, we talk to all stakeholders," she said.

The LDS Church has opposed the state allowing what's been referred to as liquor by the drink. No comment has been made by the church about the new effort to, in effect, transform private clubs into bars.

Lisa Marcy McGarry, the lawyer who filed the initiative petition, is a member of the hospitality association's board. She said changing the law will benefit all Utahns, even those who don't drink.

"I wouldn't say the advantage is for the association," she said. "It's more of an advantage for the community, the tourists — all of us. ... By it's very nature, the name hospitality implies this industry is all about welcoming people."

The signature gathering process will not start until state officials have reviewed and approved the petition. McGarry said it will not be easy to collect the required number of signatures needed to get on the ballot, especially outside the Wasatch Front.

Still, she said, enough Utahns — drinkers and nondrinkers alike — may be ready to make the change.

"People are more sophisticated now, more educated now, and more knowledgeable about the impacts of tourism on the economy," McGarry said. "If I were a nondrinking Mormon, I would actually be insulted that people would make assumptions about me."


E-mail: lisa@desnews.com