SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers will consider increasing the state's quota for restaurant liquor licenses Wednesday to make up for a shortfall that has stymied business growth in some areas.
Gov. Gary Herbert Monday called for a special session of the Legislature to address the issue and several others. The session is Wednesday, a day already set aside for committee hearings.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, has drafted a bill to add 90 new restaurant permits — 50 full-service licenses for all types of alcohol and 40 limited-service licenses for beer and wine. He also is proposing to increase the fees for those licenses to pay for increased compliance and DUI enforcement.
The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has been out of restaurant licenses for the past couple of months, which has impinged on economic development in some communities, he said.
“I have called the Legislature into special session on their June interim day to address a number of pressing legislative items," Herbert said in a statement. "One vital economic development matter needing timely resolution is the number of liquor licenses available statewide."
Lawmakers also will address a $25 million shortfall in the State Office of Education, technical amendments to the nursing accreditation laws, the manner in which the Utah Attorney General’s Office can retain outside counsel and experts, consider removing an opinion question from the November ballot, and the Senate consenting to a number of the governor’s appointments.
Herbert addressed the lack of alcohol permits at his monthly KUED news conference in May.
"I think there's a growing awareness that we need to make sure our liquor licenses line up with the demands," particularly from national restaurant chains seeking to open outlets in Utah, he said.
"Part of that is because we're a fast-growing economy. There's a lot of people that want to come to Utah," Herbert said. "Certainly those involved in the restaurant and food business are part of that growth."
With an increase in liquor permits, state law requires a corresponding increase in enforcement of alcohol laws. Valentine's bill would add four compliance officers and provide for 12 additional five-hour Utah Highway Patrol shifts for DUI blitzes.
To pay for the additional enforcement, Valentine proposes raising restaurant license and renewal fees 10 percent. The initial fee for a full-service permit is $2,000. A limited-service permit costs $750.
In addition to changing license quotas, the bill would postpone for one year a new law that allows restaurants to sell their liquor licenses to the highest bidder. It is currently set to take effect July 1.
The lack of permits significantly increases their value, Valentine said. In some neighboring states with quota systems, licenses have become hot commodities.
New Mexico, for example, has not issued a liquor license since 1982 because state law allows license holders to lease or sell them. Some have recently sold for as much as $450,000, according to a comparison of 11 Western states compiled by Utah legislative researchers.
The one-year delay allows lawmakers to make changes to the current law or decide whether they want licenses to be transferable at all, he said.
Valentine said Republican leadership in the Senate and House is on board with his proposal as is the Utah Restaurant Association. He said he also discussed the changes with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I think they're going to be neutral," he said.
State lawmakers often consult with LDS Church officials before changing liquor laws. A church spokesman Monday said the church had no comment on the specifics of Valentine's proposal, and referred to the church's most recent statement on alcohol policies.
While the church teaches its members to avoid alcohol altogether, it acknowledges that alcoholic beverages are available to the public. It continues to call for reasonable regulations to limit overconsumption, reduce impaired driving and work to eliminate underage drinking.
Art Brown, president of the Utah chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said increased law enforcement doesn't offset more drinking, but said Valentine's bill is a responsible approach.
"Anytime you increase alcohol consumption, there is an impact on public safety," he said. "That's why it's important to include the enforcement and compliance."
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