Now that the subject of polygamy has mired itself in Texas jurisprudence for the next few weeks, we can turn to another perennial Utah topic: liquor laws.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. reiterated last week his desire to put the private clubs that sell alcohol out of business.

Since the Republican governor is a teetotaling Mormon, your first reaction might be, there they go again.

But he doesn't want the clubs to stop selling alcohol, he just wants them to stop being private.

He wants to liberalize libation.

The governor is all for doing away completely with the state law that says the only way to drink anything other than beer in Utah, without also buying food, is to purchase a membership to a private club for either $4 for three weeks or $12 for a year.

It's not an exclusionary law; virtually anyone is eligible to join. And the expense, compared to what the alcohol costs that customarily follows, is minimal.

But the effect is not dissimilar to what happened when the airlines started charging a small fee for headphones: a lot of people stopped buying them.

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"I'll bet we lose at least 20 percent of our business, on average, every day at lunch," says Steve Evans, manager of Murphy's Bar & Grill, a private club on Main Street in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City.

As Rob Eddington, the club's owner, and Laura Kelly, the lunchtime bartender, nod in agreement, it's obvious that they're not about to take Steve up on that bet. And who am I to argue?

I've bellied up to the bar at Murphy's well ahead of the lunch rush. It is just past 10 a.m., and the doors won't open to the public until 11. There's nobody here but us.

I ask the three of them what they think of the governor's proposal — and of the petition filed by the Utah Hospitality Association requesting that the private club laws be put to a vote of the people in the 2010 election.

Three thumbs go up. Way up. Count them in for the revolution.

Their disdain for the private club requirements is on a par with a Jazz fan's disdain for the Lakers.

"It's the biggest thorn in our side," says Evans.

"Every day we have to explain a law to people that is unexplainable," says Eddington.

Kelly rolls her eyes and shrugs. "Tell people they have to pay money," she says, "and they're out the door already."

As they vent, I lean on the bar and listen in sympathetic silence, looking for a shot glass to polish.

They proceed to describe, in a variety of ways, a scene that they say repeats itself day in and day out:

Unsuspecting visitor walks through the door, orders a drink and gets Utah's version of Miranda: "You have the right to buy a drink, you have the right to drink that drink, IF you first exercise your right to purchase a membership to this fine club ..."

"It's embarrassing," says Eddington, who has owned Murphy's for 10 years. "We have a Main Street that's half boarded up, and then when visitors do find a place that's open, we have to explain our ridiculous laws. We put up welcome signs, and then we think up the most inhospitable thing that says you're not welcome."

"My understanding is that it's supposed to discourage bar-hopping," says Evans, a recovering alcoholic who says he hasn't had a drink in two years. "But I don't believe it does that. If people want to go somewhere else to drink, they'll go somewhere else."

"People are going to drink regardless; we proved that in the 1920s," says Eddington.

"I'm really pulling for the governor," Eddington continues. "That was one of his campaign promises, to improve the liquor laws. The last round of changes, dealing with the size of drinks, did not help private clubs one bit. But this would be nice, it would be really nice. It would be a lot more hospitable to visitors."

And Murphy's would get 20 percent more business at lunch.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.