The first detailed proposal for eliminating private-club membership requirements was introduced Wednesday at the state liquor commission, suggesting higher fees and fines for a new category of license that would be similar to bars.
No action was taken by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission on the proposal offered by vice chairman Mary Ann Mantes, but department staff members said they are already working on a version that could be ready by the next meeting on July 30.
"The private-club issue needs some action," Mantes said. "I think we should move ahead and structure a law that will gain the support of the Legislature as well as the few groups that may oppose" eliminating private-club memberships.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has called for lawmakers to scrap requirements that drinkers fill out applications and pay membership fees before they are allowed into the state's private clubs. Huntsman said the requirements hurt tourism.
The Utah Hospitality Association is already readying an initiative petition that would put the issue before voters in 2010. But the governor has said that's too long to wait and wants action in the 2009 Legislature, which begins meeting in January.
The governor's spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, said he wants to see what the liquor commission comes up with before endorsing a specific proposal.
"The important thing is this is part of a public dialogue, and we're moving forward, looking at innovative ways of making changes," Roskelley said. "Whether this is the exact blueprint of what we want to see legislatively, I don't know."
Mantes, one of only two social drinkers on the five-member commission, said she understands some sort of "trade-off" must be offered to ease the concerns of some lawmakers and groups opposed to drinking.
So she suggested boosting the cost of a private-club license under a new "membership not required" category of private-club license by 25 percent and adding a 25 percent surcharge for violations.
Private-club licenses initially cost $2,500, plus a $250 application fee. Annual renewal costs vary depending on the amount of alcohol purchased from the state, from $1,000 to $2,250. Fines vary according to the type of violation.
"I think what we do is hold these new clubs to a higher standard, and we can use that extra money for compliance and education, if we find there's a need," Mantes said. She also suggested establishing a trial period of two or three years for the new licenses.
The commission recently held two public hearings about making changes to the state's private-club laws. Most of the comments that were received backed the changes, although some private-club owners said they'd like to keep their membership requirements. Mantes' proposal would allow for that, as well as for the country clubs, fraternal organizations and dinner clubs to maintain their separate license categories that permit excluding nonmembers.
Currently, there are 89 private-club licenses issued to country clubs, fraternal organizations and dinner clubs, plus another 244 private clubs open to any member of the public willing to fill out an application and pay a membership fee of at least $12 annually.
Commissioner Bobbie Coray, who first asked the liquor commission to consider making the change, said after the meeting that she supported Mantes' proposal. "It's a good start," Coray said.Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said he's open to discussing Mantes' proposal. "I've got to be convinced this is going to maintain our enforcement levels," Valentine said, citing concerns over possible increases in underaged drinking and drunken driving. "I'm a little suspect because our present system works."