Representatives of the LDS Church and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. already have met to discuss the governor's controversial proposal to eliminate private club membership requirements.

The acknowledgment from both the church and the governor's office came Wednesday, the same day the state liquor commission voted 4-1 to request legislation be drafted to do away with membership applications and fees for private club patrons.

It will be up to the 2009 Legislature to decide whether the law should be changed to allow private clubs, Utah's version of bars, to serve anyone of legal drinking age without first making them sign up for memberships that cost at least $12 annually.

That concept, known in Utah as "liquor by the drink," has been opposed in the past by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members of the LDS Church are counseled not to drink alcohol.

As for the current proposal, LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, "We're reserving comment until we see a draft of the proposed law."

But Trotter also said that it's being discussed.

"Given the church's long-standing interest, we are in periodic conversation with many people who are involved with this issue. At the request of the governor's office, a church representative recently met with a member of the governor's staff," Trotter said.

Huntsman's spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, told the Deseret News that the governor's general counsel and deputy chief of staff, Tani Downing, has spent the past several months attempting to talk with every group that has an interest in the issue, including the LDS Church.

"She's met with a plethora of people," Roskelley said, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Utah Hospitality Association as well as members of the LDS Church's public affairs committee.

Downing will also be working with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control on the draft legislation, Roskelley said, as part of the governor's "effort to make this policy change work."

Huntsman announced earlier this year he was going forward with his latest proposal to make the state's liquor laws more tourist friendly. Last session, the governor talked lawmakers into increasing the amount of alcohol in most mixed drinks from 1 to 1.5 ounces.

Wednesday, the DABC Commission took a small step toward the governor's goal by deciding to begin readying legislation. But one commissioner, Kathryn Balmforth, suggested Utah's liquor should stay strict.

"It's nothing to be embarrassed about," Balmforth said, pointing out there are more than 500 "dry" jurisdictions around the country. "I think that's information we ought to have as a commission instead of being shamed into making changes,"

Balmforth said a proposal drafted by the commission staff to turn private clubs into "public dining clubs" or "public night clubs" didn't take into account many of the concerns raised about easing liquor restrictions.

"I see no provision for accountability here," she said. "Alcohol is controlled for a reason."

She said "everybody pays the price" for allowing alcohol consumption, including increased crime such as drunken driving.

"It's like those concerns are being completely blown off," Balmforth said, in favor of what she described as anecdotes from private club customers "miffed" at having to acquire memberships.

"We need to go back to first principles," she said, "and consider all of the people in the state of Utah."

Balmforth also balked when Commissioner Gordon Strachan said he wanted to look at getting rid of the so-called "Zion curtain" barriers in the bar areas of restaurants. Often just made of glass, the barriers are intended to separate liquor displays from customers.

She said the choice was between making restaurants store their alcohol out of sight of customers as the law now requires, or saying "there are no holds barred and have fully functioning bars in restaurants."

Strachan said the barriers "just make us look silly and sound silly." The governor, too, has questioned the need for the practice but said recently it might take a another legislative session before that issue could be addressed.

Commissioners are expected to consider both the private club and barrier issue again at their next meeting, set for Aug. 27.


E-mail: lisa@desnews.com