Liquor-by-the-drink may well be coming to Utah — a statement that would have seemed laughable just a few years ago.

Wednesday, the Utah liquor commission voted 3-1 to have staff start drafting what one commissioner called "a major change" in state liquor law to be presented to the 2009 Legislature.

Basically, the current individual private club memberships — as low as $5 for a temporary membership to some clubs — would be done away with. Any adult over 21 could go into a properly licensed bar open to the public (some private clubs would stay "private" by choice) and buy an alcoholic drink without having to also buy a meal, as current law requires.

It's called liquor-by-the-drink, and until this year anyone who really thought it could happen here was, well, drinking too much.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is in favor of the change.

The Utah Hospitality Association has started an initiative petition drive to put the change before voters in 2010.

Almost assuredly, a liquor-by-the-drink bill will be introduced into the 2009 Legislature.

And Wednesday, after the vote by the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, two private club lobbyists said there has been contact with leaders of "various churches" — including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and so far none of those religious leaders have put the kibosh on the change.

LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said church leaders "have been in contact" with those interested in the change, but leaders are withholding comment until they actually see any proposed liquor bill.

"It would be tough, very difficult" to pass such a major change in Utah liquor law over the objections of leaders of the LDS Church, said state Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem. The church "is a big stakeholder" in any liquor law changes.

The LDS Church counsels abstinence in drinking alcoholic beverages, and faithful members don't drink.

What Valentine didn't say is that 80 percent of the 104-member part-time Legislature are faithful members of the LDS Church and simply would not vote for any liquor change opposed by their religious leaders. Liquor-by-the-drink made it on to the ballot in the late 1960s, only to be defeated at the polls after LDS Church leaders opposed it.

But that was 40 years ago.

Local attorney Pat Shea, a non-Mormon who has long-held connections with LDS Church leaders, said Wednesday that "leaders of various churches" may well accept a change in state liquor law — as long as overconsumption by adults is controlled and Utah's effort to keep liquor from youths are maintained, and even strengthened.

Shea is a lobbyist for some private club owners, as is former state House member Steve Barth. Both men attended Wednesday's liquor commission meeting, indicating afterward that church leaders are at least willing to see the process move forward.

LDS Church leaders in the past have not endorsed liquor law changes, they just don't object to a proposed change before the Legislature. And that silent act is seen as an endorsement by lawmakers.

Often a spokesman for the LDS Church is sent to either a liquor commission public hearing on a proposed change or to a legislative committee public hearing on a liquor bill to express concerns by church leaders. No such hearings have been held yet, but Wednesday Commissioner Bobbie Coray, who made the motion to start drafting the bill, said several public hearings on liquor-by-the-drink will be held "so all sides can be heard."

Valentine said Utah should be proud that it has the lowest occurrence of DUI in the nation. "And I will not support any bill" that could harm that status. "We've been doing a very good job on overconsumption" of alcohol by adults and "keeping alcohol out of the reach of youth," said Valentine. "I won't do anything to jeopardize that."

At first blush, just doing away with private club memberships is not enough, he added. "You have to give something up, as well" on the side of better alcohol consumption enforcement.

House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said he has had no discussions about doing away with private club memberships with anyone, including religious leaders.

"I'm concerned about the process of jumping in (with a state law change) over a citizen initiative — what kind of precedent does that set," said Curtis.

One vote liquor-by-the-drink advocates won't get, apparently, is that of Commissioner Kathryn Balmforth, the lone "no" vote Wednesday.

That the liquor commission is even studying liquor-by-the-drink makes it look like there is a "ground swell" among the public for such "a major change," she said. "I'm not sure that's the case."

Balmforth said Utah's population is different that other states — a large majority of residents don't drink alcohol. And under the federal system of states, it's fine to reflect that difference in state liquor law, she added.

"People sneer at us because our (liquor) laws are different. If this (liquor control law) is gone, they will find something else to sneer at," she said.

Huntsman, a Mormon whose late grandfather was a member of the LDS Church's governing Quorum of the Twelve, says private club membership laws should be changed to bring Utah liquor laws more into "normalcy."

But Balmforth said Utah private club membership laws are fine.

"Anyone who wants to get a drink can get one. Why even have private clubs if you don't accept members?" she asked. "There is nothing unreasonable, stupid or small-minded" in trying to keep one group of society — the nondrinkers — from the societal costs of abuse of alcohol or for the state to keep some kind of control over alcohol consumption, she added.

Balmforth said it is clear to her why private club owners — and their advocates — want the law changed: They may become less liable under current dram-shop laws should a customer drink too much and cause harm to someone else, on the highway or in some other way.

But Shea said private clubs are not the causes of DUIs, by and large, and certainly are not the places where youths obtain alcohol.

"They get (beer) at grocery stores," he said.

Some church leaders are willing to aid tourists and others "with more accommodating liquor laws," said Shea, "so that we can get to the real problems with overconsumption — and that is not in the private clubs."

But Valentine and Curtis said a lot more study must go into the issue before lawmakers act in next year's general session, which starts in January.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com