The Utah Legislature refused to reform Utah’s separate dispensing area law that requires restaurants to wall off the preparation and mixing of
The Utah Legislature refused to reform Utah's separate dispensing area law that requires restaurants to wall off the preparation and mixing of alcoholic drinks from their customers. (Stock photo)

State Reps. Kraig Powell (R- Heber) and Gage Froerer (R -- Huntsville) introduced and pushed for three different reforms of Utah's unusual liquor laws during the legislative session that ended March 13 -- HB 285, regarding the separate dispensing area requirement, HB 338, regarding limited club licenses, and HB 352, regarding sampling at distilleries.

None of the bills received a final vote on either the House or Senate floor.

The legislative session evidenced a breakdown in communication when it comes to liquor laws -- the opposing sides often appeared to talk past each other. And Powell, whose district includes Park City, addressed the issue head on.

He hosted a community forum in Park City last November to discuss potential reforms to the intent to dine and separate dispensing area liquor laws, which are unpopular in the town. He named the forum "Through a Glass, Darkly" -- a Bible reference he reiterated in his closing remarks at a House Revenue and Taxation Committee hearing on March 4 at which his separate dispensing area reform bill was debated.

"Paul says in First Corinthians that as we live this life we see through a glass darkly," Powell said. "Because we don't actually see what other people see because we're not other people. And so as we here as non-drinkers make legislative policy for alcohol, I think we always need to do so with a large dose of reservation, wondering exactly if we really understand the implications of the policy we are passing."

Many of Powell's constituents do consume alcohol, so Powell pushed for changes to the laws that restaurateurs find the most onerous. The problem he ran into in his push for reforms -- even in an arguably narrowly-tailored fashion -- is that supporters of the liquor laws have no interest in amending them, period. And so the push for reform was destined for failure from the get-go.

Total reform or nothing

Rep. Jacob Anderegg (R -- Lehi) provided, at no less than two hearings this past legislative session, the harshest criticism of some of the liquor laws.

He called the separate dispensing wall requirement, or "Zion curtain," as it is often referred, "lunacy," "absolutely stupid," "ridiculous" and "the dumbest thing in the world."

"I hate it," he said at a hearing for HB 338.

But Anderegg opposed any liquor law reforms this session -- including Powell's reform specifically dealing with the Zion curtain.

"I can't stand the grey area. I want it to be black or white," he said at a hearing for that bill.

Anderegg explained to The Park Record his opposition to reforming a law that he described in such harsh terms at committee hearings.

"I don't like putting Band-Aids on a bigger issue," he said. "As a legislator, and maybe this is my own political flaw, for every thousand that are hacking at the branches, there's only one hacking at the root. And I'd rather be that guy that's trying to address the root. And if everything has got to be put on hold until we get that done, I'm fine with that."

"We are either in the business of protecting minors or we're not," he said.

Powell's bill would have allowed restaurants to opt out of erecting and maintaining the separate dispensing wall if they instead place a sign on entrances and menus reading "Notice: This establishment dispenses and serves alcoholic products in public view."

One might think that such signs might actually win support for the reform. That did not appear to be the case. When asked specifically about the merits of the notice requirement, what is the grey area or haziness in it, he responded, "Well once again, as a state are we going to allow minors into a bar setting or are we not?"

Is Anderegg planning on introducing the "black and white" reform he says is needed?

"I am working on one that will not be ready [for this past legislative session]. I've got six or seven shareholders -- and when I say shareholders I'm talking people who care about the issue that I still need to meet with -- and it's going to tighten it up on some it's going to loosen it on others, and some people are going to be [upset] about it.

"However you draw that line through the sand, someone right next to that line is going to be angry."

In general, Anderegg has no problem voting "No." Responding to criticism on Twitter after he casted the sole No vote in the House when it passed the Unlawful Activities Amendments Bill on March 6, Anderegg Tweeted: "My default vote this session has been 'No.' Whenever I have not had proper time to study a bill I default to a 'No' vote."

"That's because we live in a democracy"

Powell has an altogether different view of governing and is critical of Anderegg's approach.

"The problem is, this area of regulation that we have created is so minute and so detailed, that any time you get into it is a very complicated analysis," he told The Park Record. "And any legislator who wants to draw bright lines or focus only on large, general categories is always going to be frustrated. Unless you get into the weeds of the nuts and bolts of each individual restriction and draw lines here and draw lines there, you're not going to make any progress."

"And I think that some of the committee members' comments express frustration that we can't have bright lines, my response to that would be that legislators always draw lines, and that is our job," Powell continued.

"One of the frustrations that I have is that many of the legislators that say 'well we keep doing this every year and we keep having to change things every year and people keep bringing arguments to us every year.' Well that's because we live in a democracy where we're supposed to be -- every year -- reacting to our constituents and listening to them and making changes based on what they say."

Froerer says he has supported various liquor law reforms in most of the eight legislative sessions for which he has been in the Utah House and has become familiar with the debates around them.

"I'd like it black and white myself, but I don't think you ever get there and still have the regulations in place that a number of people think you need to have to control it," he said. "I'm all for simplification, but to me that's really just an effort to say 'we don't want to make any changes.'"

"The standard answer against any alcohol bill," Froerer explained, "is that it is going to create an environment of alcohol use and increased access to alcohol, and then it goes from there into drunken driving and binge drinking and a number of other factors that really have nothing to do with, for example, my bill on sampling [in distilleries] -- the same arguments were used -- drunk driving, etc., that really had nothing to do with my bill. My bill basically just was to allow distilleries to be on an equal playing field with wineries and breweries and allow sampling.

"So yeah, the common theme is: any bill with alcohol will have the ability to increase alcohol use in the state."

"An open bar in your face"

Jayne Brown, Executive Director of the Strengthening Families Foundation, testified at the hearing for Powell's bill.

"I have attended these hearings for 13 years and I have never seen a bill that is worse than this one," she said.

"The facts are," she told The Park Record, "because it's in your face, it does affect kids, it does affect alcoholics."

What about the notice requirement, if restaurants opt out of the separate dispensing area wall requirement?

"First of all," Brown said, "the wording of that bill, the wording of the sign, it says 'this is to inform you that there will be alcoholic drinks mixed in the open.' It doesn't say 'we have an open bar in your face, do you want to bring your kids into an open bar? Then you can enter.' It doesn't say that.

"The wording of the warning is so weak as to not cause anyone to blink, because how you present that can either lull people into security, thinking 'well that can't be harmful, it won't matter if my kids come in there.'"

Could the language of such a sign be changed into something that would be good for Utahns?

"The first thing I would do is to oppose legislation that creates any more open bars in restaurants," Brown said. "It's poor public policy. There's no need for it number one and it puts people at risk. Why would we want to do that?"

"We've got to preserve the youth because they're the hope for tomorrow, they're tomorrow's leaders," she said. "They're the ones who have to get jobs and be responsible, continue the infrastructure, care for the new society. We need to preserve that. So why are we making legislation that would put them at risk?

"Why are we shoving an open bar into the faces of people who don't go there to drink?"

"I'm really measured about this and it's really a research thing, because you need to not just go by people's opinions of what might be nice, you really need to go by what the research shows," she said.

The Church

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the often-left-unsaid factor in the liquor law debate. The Church's position is that "God has spoken against the use of" alcohol, among other substances.

According to a Gallup poll released last month, 60 percent of Utah's residents are Mormons. Idaho is second with 24 percent, Wyoming next with 9 percent and no other state cracking 5 percent.

On Jan. 21, less than one week before the legislative session began, the Church released an article and video interview with Elder D. Todd Christofferson in which it reiterated its support for the existing liquor laws, adding that the laws have nothing to do with its doctrine.

"Utah's alcohol laws and regulations are based on well-reasoned and sound public policy considerations adopted by Utah's legislature, not on the Church's religious doctrine regarding the use of alcohol," the article reads.

"The Church is opposed to any legislation that will weaken Utah's alcohol laws and regulations," the article reads, including any proposals "that would promote increased sales or consumption of alcoholic products in Utah."

Did the Church's pre-legislative-session missive hurt reform efforts?

"Oh yeah," said Froerer. "All you have to do is take a look at legislation that was passed last year out of committee and very similar legislation got voted down in committee this year. So the only difference is comments made by the church."

Do any legislators admit the Church's influence?

"Well they don't come out and at least publically say that," Froerer said. "Privately yes, publically no."

Powell is a little more diplomatic about the issue.

"Let me say that I believe the LDS church was very effective in its presentation of its position through media and communication, and so the legislators who heard that and viewed that presentation were given additional reasons to support Utah's current policies," he said. "And so I think that the LDS church has been effective in persuading some minds in the Legislature with their arguments, yes."