Legislative leaders said Wednesday that the LDS Church's new statement on alcohol makes it easier to consider Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s proposal to change the state's liquor laws.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posted a statement on its Web site earlier this week that suggested there could be agreement on "laws and regulations that allow individual freedom of choice."
The statement did not specifically mention Huntsman's proposal to eliminate private club requirements, but it did say there is a need to preserve "Utah's proven positive health and safety record on limiting the tragic consequences of overconsumption of alcohol."
Lawmakers have yet to embrace the governor's proposal to make the state more tourist-friendly by doing away with the membership applications and fees required to drink in private clubs, which are similar to bars.
"It makes it easier to sit down and have a dialogue," said Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo. "At the front end, it makes it easier for members of the caucus to accept there may be viable reform."
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said he wants to see what the proposal is before backing any changes to private clubs. "Right now, we have a system that works," Valentine said.
The Senate president said he likes the idea of giving tourists a temporary, two-week membership to private clubs rather than getting rid of the requirements entirely. That idea is not supported by Huntsman.
Nor is it being considered by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which is currently drafting a proposal expected to go before liquor commissioners next month.
Valentine said he was pleased that the church's statement sets up a "balancing test" that focuses on the need to limit overconsumption, reduce drunken driving and attempting to eliminate underage drinking as well as making alcohol available.
"The statement shows that this stakeholder in the debate is rational in their approach to the solution," Valentine said. Still, he said, some members of the Senate GOP caucus will still oppose any changes to private club laws.
Bramble carried last session's major piece of alcohol legislation, a bill that moved so-called "alcopops" from grocery stores into state liquor stores and increased the amount of alcohol available in most mixed drinks from 1 ounce to 1.5 ounces.
That bill was widely seen as a compromise that makes it harder to get the flavored malt beverage like Mike's Hard Lemonade but easier to get a stronger mixed drink, something also pushed by the governor.
The LDS Church openly backed the "alcopop" portion of the bill and did not oppose the rest of it, Bramble said. "There was a very clear signal," he said. "The church came a long way on the mixed-drink issue."
The same could happen with the private club issue, Bramble said, although it is not yet clear what else would be included in that bill to turn it into a similar type of compromise.
House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said the church's statement "is an opportunity for open dialogue. To have them say we're willing to have an open discussion certainly sets the tone. Yes, it is helpful."Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, who describes himself as a social drinker, called the statement "a great recognition of current social values ... drinking on its own may not be as great a taboo as we had previously thought."