What I think may be the most significant development will be not necessarily success or a different result immediately but an opportunity to debate and discuss in the Senate. —Rep. Kraig Wilcox
SALT LAKE CITY — For the past few years, any legislation having to do with state liquor laws ran through Sen. John Valentine.
The Orem Republican had the power to push through bills he favored and quash ones he didn't like. But with the 26-year veteran leaving the Legislature next month, lawmakers face charting a different course for alcohol policy or staying the course that Valentine help set.
"That definitely changes the paradigm," said former Republican legislator Ryan Wilcox, who ran into a Valentine blockade last year.
Wilcox tried to get rid of the alcohol dispensing partition — sometimes called the Zion Curtain — in restaurants that separates diners from alcohol dispensing. The bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate. He didn't bother to bring it back for the 2014 session.
Valentine said his goal was always to balance hospitality and public safety, with an eye toward preventing overconsumption, drunken driving, underage drinking and exposing children to alcohol.
Supporters point to Utah's envious position as a national leader in preventing problems associated with alcohol. Utah teenagers drink at much lower rates than the national average. For example, the 30-day use rate for Utah high school seniors was 14 percent compared to about 42 percent nationally, according to the 2013 Student Health and Risk Prevention report.
Additionally, Utah has the lowest number of alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita in the country and has the lowest prevalence of binge drinking among those 18 and older in the country.
Yet House members started calling Wilcox about running liquor bills shortly after hearing last week about Valentine's pending resignation to become head of the Utah Tax Commission.
"A lot of guys are talking about it," he said.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, is one of them. He said Valentine's absence will change the landscape for liquor legislation.
"What I think may be the most significant development will be not necessarily success or a different result immediately but an opportunity to debate and discuss in the Senate. The House has not been shy about at least having a discussion and debate on these issues," he said.
House bills like the one Wilcox proposed in 2013 often don't get a public hearing in a Senate committee and don't reach the floor. Valentine, as chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, controlled which bills advanced and which didn't. He also could be persuasive with his Republican colleagues in closed Senate caucuses.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said it's hard to tell what effect Valentine's absence will have on alcohol policy. Though Valentine was the leader on that issue, his Republican Senate colleagues generally agreed with him.
"I don't see a big change going forward," he said.
The Sutherland Institute, a conservative political think tank that has lobbied against easing alcohol restrictions, agrees.
"For conservatives, we're in a good position. The last session went well for us on this issue. I think we're positioned well to keep that momentum going," said Derek Monson, Sutherland director of policy.
Agree or disagree with him, Valentine pulled competing interests together to at least talk through major policy changes. His departure also creates a knowledge gap on a subject that many legislators aren't well versed in.
"It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, wants to step up on that issue and be the next go-to guy," Monson said. "There's probably a lot of conversations going on behind the scenes."
Monson said Sutherland didn't always agree with Valentine but he said he did a good job striking a balance between loosening and tightening liquor laws.
Valentine teamed up with former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, in 2009 to pass sweeping reform that included doing away with requiring bar patrons buy a private club membership to enter a bar.
As part of that deal, lawmakers reaffirmed a state law calling for separate preparation areas for food and alcohol and requirements to serve food with alcohol to distinguish restaurants from bars.
Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said her organization's No. 1 goal is to take down the so-called Zion Curtain. She said she's looking for a more "open-minded" approach with Valentine gone.
"We can keep our foot on the brake forever and continue to affect the economy and affect our image. But if we just let up on the brake a little bit, we can make some positive inroads here that will be beneficial for everyone in the state of Utah," she said.
Some indicators suggest Utah is doing fine the way it is and challenge Sine's narrative. It is one of the top-ranked states for business and economic growth, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The travel, tourism and recreation industry spent a record $7.4 billion in the state in 2012, according to the Utah Office of Tourism.
Another factor in how alcohol issues might play out is the departure of House Speaker Becky Lockhart, who is leaving after 16 years in the Legislature. The Provo Republican supported legislation to remove the alcohol preparation partition, a policy she called "weird."
Powell said that could have a "slight impact" but leadership support is always helpful. Unless there's large turnover in the House, he said, its preferences on alcohol issues will stay the same.
He intends to re-introduce a bill in 2015 that gives restaurants the option to keep the partition or post a sign that reads: "This establishment dispenses and serves alcoholic products in public view."
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