SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday signed the controversial bill that lowers the legal blood-alcohol limit to .05 percent, stressing repeatedly it is an issue of public safety.
Herbert said earlier in the day during his monthly press conference on KUED Ch. 7 that the decision came after thorough research and in consultation with multiple stakeholders.
The governor said he will call a special session in August or September, however, "to address the unintended and collateral consequences" of the law, which will be the first in the country to lower the standard for impaired drivers from .08 percent when it takes effect Dec. 30, 2018.
"I don't believe the legislation is finished. We will still need more thorough consideration on how this new standard is applied," Herbert said, adding that the issue will be taken up during interim legislative meetings in which the public will have an opportunity to be heard.
"Anything is on the table for consideration," he said, including pushing "pause" and waiting for other states to drop to a similar limit.
"I know there seems to be some reluctance to be first in the nation, although I would remind everybody we were first in the nation to go from .10 to .08 percent," he said, and the rest of the country followed suit.
Herbert said GOP leadership is on board for a special session, where lawmakers can explore options for invoking a two-tiered system or graduated penalties for someone who tests at .05 percent, among other possible changes to the measure.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Norm Thurston, R- Provo, said he is open to changes to HB155.
"If there are issues that need to be addressed, whatever timeline (Herbert) choses, I would be supportive of that," he said.
Herbert's announcement that he will sign the bill provoked disappointment from the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, whose executive director Michele Corigliano predicted the lower limit will put independent restaurant owners out of business because their operational margin is already so slim. People will stay home to have a drink with dinner rather than risk the law, she said.
"Obviously, we are very disappointed that he is going to sign this bill despite public outcry," Corigliano said, adding that calls to Herbert's office from people were 10-1 against the measure.
"We feel like the unintended consequences of this bill will far outweigh the merits," she said. She did say her organization will work in "good faith" with lawmakers as changes to the bill are consider.
Although his office has been "inundated" with calls and the state targeted as punitive in a national advertising campaign by the American Beverage Institute, Herbert said his first charge as governor is to keep residents and visitors safe.
"Everybody agrees that public safety has got to be at the forefront of what we decide to do when we develop policy. Really, the role of government is, in fact, to make sure that we have safety — in our neighborhoods, on the streets and the things we do in life," Herbert said.
He later added that be believes lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit is good policy.
The governor insisted the lower limit in Utah does not make Utah "weird."
He pointed out that 85 percent of the world's population currently lives in countries with laws that have .05 percent blood-alcohol limits or less, including France and Italy.
Herbert bristled at the suggestion that the law is a religious or Mormon issue because of the state's predominant religion that encourages its members not to drink alcohol.
"There's not many Mormons in Rome and they're doing it there also," he said.
Herbert said the lower blood-alcohol content limit may be an opportunity for the state to take its "brand" and push the message that tourists can visit Utah and enjoy a place that has a crime rate half the national average and safer streets.
One local business leader is confident the measure will not be a long-term detriment to area commerce. Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber — the state’s largest business commerce organization — said some of the same concerns were raised years ago when the state lowered the blood-alcohol level from .10 to .08.
“We had a lot of people say, ‘This will destroy Utah’s economy. No one will want to come here,’” he said. “(The bill) doesn’t stop drinking, it stops drunk drivers. That’s where the business community has been more supportive of the issue.”
He said the evidence-based presentations made by public safety officials during the legislative debate were very convincing, which is part of why the measure gained so much traction.
“The only impact (this measure is) really going to have in the long-term is that you’ll find many other states looking at the same (safety) information (and) in just a few years, it will be the standard across the country,” Beattie predicted.
But Beattie's prediction flies in the face of claims made in an extensive advertising campaign launched by the American Beverage Institute, which took out full-page ads Thursday in both Salt Lake City daily newspapers and USA Today.
The advertisement asserts the law creates a new class of criminals — responsible adults who drink moderately.
It shows a booking mug of a woman whose crime was "had one drink with dinner." At the top, the advertisement reads, "Utah: Come on vacation, leave on probation."
Herbert pointed to another advertisement with a contrasting message by brewer Heineken that features race car driver Jackie Stewart. Stewart is repeatedly offered a drink, but refuses because he's still driving.
"The essence is if you are going to drink, don't drive," Herbert said.
Boyd Matheson, president of the Sutherland Institute, applauded the governor for his decision.
“Opponents of HB155 are attempting to make this law about Utah’s public image — about limiting the choices of citizens and visitors to the state. HB155 will have no impact on what or how much individuals drink — it is focused on protecting lives by ensuring those who choose to drink also choose not to drive impaired."
But critics like the American Beverage Institute's Sarah Longwell said Utah's move to the lower limit will criminalize moderate drinkers, hurt tourism and divert law enforcement eyes from the hardcore drinkers who are the real danger on the streets.
"It’s a sad day for Utah. Gov. Herbert’s decision to sign Utah’s .05 legislation will not only harm the people of Utah, but cripple their restaurant and tourism industries," she said. "A 120-pound women can now have little more than a single drink before being subject to arrest, $10,000 in fines, attorney fees, increased insurance costs and the social stigma of being labeled a ‘drunk driver’ — which will lead many to forgo that glass of wine with dinner."
Contributing: Jasen Lee