Reforming Utah's liquor laws was a tall task from the beginning, and opposition to any reform proved too much for Park City's state representative, Kraig Powell (R - Heber), to overcome.
This legislative session, Powell introduced a bill, H.B. 285, that would have addressed two specific areas of the liquor laws that restaurants are especially frustrated with - the intent to dine and separate dispensing area requirements.
Intent to dine requires restaurants to verbally confirm that their diners will, in fact, be dining, as opposed to only drinking. Powell dropped intent to dine reform from H.B. 285 "so that the focus can be on the most onerous aspect of restaurant liquor regulation, the separate dispensing wall."
The separate dispensing area law, also known as the "Zion curtain," or "the wall" requires newer restaurants to erect an opaque partition that prevents customers from viewing the pouring or preparation of alcoholic drinks.
H.B. 285 would have allowed restaurants subject to the separate dispensing area requirement to opt out and instead "post a conspicuous sign at all public entrances" that reads "Notice: This establishment prepares and dispenses alcoholic products in public view."
Powell managed to get his bill one debate during the Legislative session - before the House Revenue and Taxation Committee last Tuesday, March 4 - where he led the push for reform.
The case against the wall
Powell opened the hearing by stating that the focus of his testimony, and that of his supporters of the bill, would be on "the citizens and constituents and business owners I've been working with, because I want you to see the issue from their perspective."
Representatives of Utah restaurant associations and tourism industries then gave testimony. Joel LaSalle of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association spoke of the "integrity issue," because customers ask how they know they're receiving what they ordered. "Our customers from out of state think it's strange," he said.
Ty Bessinger, CEO of Pethad Properties, said he has spent three decades soliciting restaurants from out of state, recently representing Buffalo Wild Wings. He said that chains coming into Utah don't understand the purpose of the wall. He pointed out that bottles of wine and beer can be poured at a table and that 90 percent of restaurants in Utah are not required to have a wall because they were "grandfathered" - made exempt - from the wall requirement when it was passed into law.
"It strikes them as being confusing, a little bit illogical and not really very balanced or fair." Bessinger said. "We have solicited many restaurant chains to come to this state and we have been turned down by several."
Melva Sine, CEO of the Utah Restaurant Association, addressed another concern of supporters of the existing law. "There's lots and lots of choice," she said. There are over 4,300 restaurants in Utah and only 900 of them sell some kind of alcohol, she testified.
Nan Anderson, Executive Director of the Utah Tourism Industry Coalition, said that tourists generated $960 million in state and local taxes last year. She said H.B. 285 would help alleviate some of the "awkward moments" that restaurants have with customers from out of state who are thrown off by the unusual laws.
Rep. Brian King (R - Salt Lake City) said that posting signs on restaurants, as H.B. 285 would allow, "is a movement in the right direction in terms of limiting access of alcohol to minors."
"To the extent it has any kind of connection at all with underage drinking, it addresses those in a far more reasonable fashion than the Zion curtain," he continued, "which I think nobody has demonstrated to me has any reasonable, rational connection between the things that we're all concerned about - excessive use, DUIs, underage drinking."
The case for the wall
While the reform bill's supporters focused their testimony on the subject of the bill - the wall itself - its opponents spoke in broader terms of "protecting minors."
Rep. Jacob Anderegg (R - Lehi), who sits on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, conceded that the wall is "the dumbest thing in the world" and "stupid." He said that "it takes some good initiatives heading in the right direction."
But, he said, he couldn't support H.B. 285 because "we are either in the business of protecting minors or we're not."
Rep. Eric Hutchings (R - Kearns), also a member of the committee, expressed frustration with Anderson's concerns that Utah's laws can be confusing to out-of-staters.
"We're not talking about lack of availability, we're talking about an awkward moment, right? Are there other awkward moments that they run into? Because I have been told that alcohol isn't really the issue, it's our stance on gay marriage that causes a lack of tourism in the state," Hutchings said. "I have been told that it's a lack of a conference hotel that is causing our lack of tourism in the state. I have been told that it's because we're Amish, and people are nervous about coming to see the Amish."
"I've been in other countries and I've had multiple awkward moments as I've tried to order things in a foreign language," he said. "How much further should we go? Vegas? Amsterdam? How much further does Utah need to go? Do you have a goal, a target?"
Jayne Brown, Executive Director of the Strengthening Families Foundation, said "I have attended these hearings for 13 years and I have never seen a bill that is worse than this one."
"What is the research? Not the fantasy that we're hearing, but the actual facts of how do we prevent underage drinking and how do we prevent the alcohol problems in our city," she said. She did not address how the wall tackles those issues, although her allotted time to speak was limited.
Rep. Doug Sagers (R - Tooele) did not appear to appreciate the arguments of those supporting H.B. 285. "Why not have a law that my chocolate milk or glass of water has to be prepared in my view?" he asked.
Bill passes committee
The bill passed the committee by an 8-7 vote. It never received a vote on the House floor - partially due to time constraints, as the Legislature was "way behind on debating bills this year," according to Powell - but chiefly due to a lack of interest on the Senate side.
"There really wasn't any support over here," Sen. John Valentine (R- Orem) told The Salt Lake Tribune. "The biggest issue here in the Senate is that we have made so many changes over each year that we think we have the balance pretty close to right."