In one month, Utah lawmakers will begin the 2013 Legislative Session. Though the start of the year will bring new issues onto the political dockets, a few key issues will continue to stir controversy, including the state liquor laws.
This year, legislators are already meeting with industry leaders and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control as they prepare drafts of bills for the first day of session in January. Sen. John Valentine (R-Orem) already presented the first drafts of his bill to the Interim Business and Labor Committee over the summer. The bill would free up liquor licenses by creating a master license option for businesses with more than one location, addressing the growing concern among business owners that liquor licenses will run out.
"The concept was that restaurants wanting more than a couple of licenses will pay for a master license," Valentine said, "allowing them to continue to expand business without needing to be part of a quota system for every location."
In a special legislative session called by Gov. Gary Herbert in June, legislators voted to approve additional liquor licenses after several prominent restaurant chains reconsidered attempts to build locations in Utah due to the lack of liquor licenses available at the time. Lawmakers added 90 new liquor licenses for restaurants.
Sen. Valentine would be able increase the number of available licenses with his bill if legislators approve the switch to a master license system.
"I looked at master licenses like the system Iowa has," Valentine said. "Iowa is a controlled state like Utah, and I thought, 'How could we implement something like this?'"
Hans Fuegi, a Park City restaurateur and board member of the Utah Restaurant Association met with Valentine earlier this month to discuss liquor law issues and the concept of a master license. The concept was something he said he and other members of the association support, if implemented correctly.
"I think it is a solution if done right," Fuegi said. "What it would do, it would free up a substantial amount of licenses. If you had a multiple location operation, say 12 or 15 stores or restaurants that could operate under one license, that allows a lot more of these licenses to be available for new operations without having to change the whole formula."
Several businesses in Park City are required to pay for multiple licenses every year under the current law, including Canyons Resort, Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain Resort. From Wasatch Brewery to the Sky Lodge to Jupiter Bowl, several local businesses are paying for multiple licenses, according the the Utah Department of Beverage Control.
"We are lobbying to clean up these different regulations," Fuegi said. "In our minds, the more we can simplify the things that don't make sense to our guests, the better we will be."
The lack of available licenses has held up restaurants and bars in the past, with too many trying to gain the licenses and not enough to go around, also a major reason in calling a special session this summer. Those seeking private club licenses, the most controlled liquor license in the state that allow businesses to serve alcohol until 1 a.m., are often forced to buy the license from other businesses at the price of several thousands of dollars, as was the case for Park City Live earlier this year.
"A very similar concept (to the master license) was floated around years ago for resorts," Fuegi said, "these businesses that have quite a few different license tied up because they have different food and liquor outlets.
"The idea ran into problems, some concerns of what would happen to the overall license if you have a violation in one establishment."
Though it is a concern that Sen. Valentine has been working to address, restaurateurs are anxious to see drafts of the bill that would outline how penalties would be handled.
"These are legitimate concerns," Valentine said, "and we really need to focus on what to do if there is a violation, if someone serves alcohol to a minor."
Valentine is proposing a continuum or scale to deal with any violations, meaning that one violation would be fined accordingly, but continual problems with violations at multiple locations under the license would be penalized more severely.
"This system gives predictability to people who want to expand operations or come to Utah," Valentine said. "It will really focus on the issue and allow for economic development."
Another component of the bill would address public safety concerns, adding to current DUI law enforcement efforts.
Rep. Ryan Wilcox (R-Ogden) is also hoping to introduce legislation concerning the Zion Curtain, a law that was passed in 2009 requiring any new restaurants serving alcohol to build a partition between where drinks are mixed and guests.
"We're working on a compromise," Wilcox said. " this is an issue where we haven't had the desired effect. It has done more damage than good, and that is mainly to the tourism industry."
"It doesn't stop teen drinking or underage drinking," he added, "and theoretically, that is what it is there for."
Fuegi said the concept made little sense, that it confused patrons more than prevented underage drinking.
"Anybody who knows the industry realizes the curtain makes no sense," Fuegi said. "It is very unfair legislation because some establishments are grandfathered in. If you had license prior to that year the legislation was passed, you did not have to abide by those regulations.
"It doesn't do anything but confuse guests. Laws like this one is what makes us, this state, the subject of negative press. People can't figure it out and are left scratching their heads asking what does this do?"