With less than a month left in the 2013 General Session for the Utah Legislature, lawmakers are kicking into overdrive, pushing bills out of committee and to the floor for final a decision. And the same is true for potential changes to current liquor laws. A host of bills addressing liquor issues in the state have been introduced since the session began in January, from offering a master license to restaurateurs with more than one location to increasing the beer tax rate.
"When it comes to liquor legislation, I don't know what will happen," said Bill Malone, the Park City Chamber/Bureau President and CEO. "We could end up with a bunch of bills passed or no bills passed.
"We have new senate leadership, and there is some longstanding, pent-up demand for bills relating to liquor on the docket. In previous sessions, there was not an atmosphere that was receptive to making changes. This year is an opportunity to talk again, to fiddle with idiosyncrasies. There are some great things out there."
The Park City Chamber/Bureau is also keeping a steady eye fixed on the Legislature, watching for bills that could impact the tourism industry, restaurants and lodging properties. Alcohol-related issues in Utah are a continual headache for local, tourism-based businesses, which often end up explaining to out-of-town customers the ins and outs of the state-run system. Whether it is stopping a hotel guest from carrying a drink from the bar to their room despite it all being under the same roof or explaining why there is a difference the alcohol percentage in bottled beer versus tap, the liquor laws in Utah continue to have guests scratching their heads a fact that reflects on businesses.
"I think most of us in the hospitality industry in this state look at liquor laws from the perspective of what it appears like to our guests, our consumer," Malone added. "It is hard for someone to understand all the laws because there is a lack of consistency. If I go into one restaurant without a Zions Wall but another restaurant I went to had one, it is confusing, the old and new dates on these laws changing what this or that location may have to do. Those are peculiarities, and we are striving for consistency."
Sen. John Valentine (R-Orem) is sponsoring a number of bills, among them the "Alcoholic Beverage Control Amendments," or S.B. 167, which 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.
"There is a rise and fall on the merits of this proposal," Valentine said. "We have opponents and supporters."
"There are concerns, and we have to recognize the social cost of the increased use of alcohol," he added. "I have tried to find a good balance, a companion bill to boost enforcement funding in terms of officers and money to the attorney general's office. This balance is very important with liquor laws."
When asked whether or not the Legislature may take a more liberal stance on liquor issues, Valentine said each bill would be taken into consideration, that no one direction would win without going through the standard process. Malone added to the thought, that determining what Senate leadership would look like at this point is too early in the game.
Hans Fuegi, a Park City restaurateur and board member of the Utah Restaurant Association met with Valentine before the start of the General Session to discuss liquor law issues and the concept of a master license. It is a concept he and other members of the association support.
"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."
Other bills the chamber and local business owners are watching include whether or not a customer may order a drink if they have indicated an intent to order food, swapping liquor licenses from the windely unused reception center license to a social club license and transferring $37.5 million from state alcohol sale revenues into the education fund.
"We have more liberalized liquor laws than other states, areas of the country that are completely dry," Valentine said. " There is a full spectrum, and Utah is on the conservative side. But that is because we are a controlled state, but taking down the Zions Curtain and removing requirements to enter a social club, we have become far more mainstream."
" There are a lot of views on how to control alcohol," he added. "What we are doing now is dealing with specific issues."
SB167: Alcoholic Beverage Control Amendments - Sponsor: Valentine, J. Status: Senate, placed on second reading calendar on February 11, 2013 This bill creates a master restaurant license. It would be for a single owner of multiple restaurant locations. This is intended to free up many current restaurant licenses for new restaurants, while not changing the formula of licenses based on the state's population. While an earlier draft version was previously believed to address the "Zion Wall" requirement for new restaurants, SB 167 does not remove the "Zion Wall" requirement. HB228S01: Alcoholic Beverage Control Act Amendments - Sponsor: Wilcox, R Status: Was scheduled for committee debate last Thursday, but restaurant operators were too busy with Valentine's Day preparations to come testify, so the bill was pulled from the agenda. It will be heard this week. This bill addresses numerous DABC control issues that arose after last year's audit. Language to remove the "Zion Wall" requirement for new restaurants was amended in to the bill on Friday morning. HB0136: Alcoholic Beverage Control Related Amendments - Sponsor: Draxler, J. Status: House/first reading (introduced) on February 13, 2013 This bill proposes to increase the minimum markup on alcoholic beverages, increase the beer tax rate and provide for the distribution of the new revenue to increase alcoholic beverage control enforcement. HB0218S01: Alcohol Amendments - Sponsor: Froerer, G. Status: House third reading calendar for house bills. This bill addresses conditional liquor licenses during a start-up phase of an establishment; clarifies that a patron in a restaurant may order a drink if he/she has indicated an intent to order food; swaps liquor licenses from unused reception center licenses to social club licenses; and addresses treatment of guests at fraternal clubs and advertising by an equity or fraternal club. HB0240: Alcohol Service in Restaurants - Sponsor: Fisher, Janice Status: House/received fiscal note from Fiscal Analyst February 15, 2013 This bill clarifies that a restaurant patron may order a drink if he/she has the intent to order food. HB0271: Funding for Public Education - Sponsor: Bird, J. Status: House/first reading (introduced) January 28, 2013 This bill transfers $37.5 million from alcohol sales revenues to the education fund. Hotel Alcohol Licensing - There is talk of creating a hotel license similar to a master restaurant license proposed in SB 167, but patrons would not have portability in the common areas of the hotel. The Utah Hotel and Lodging Association had asked Sen. Valentine to pursue a Hotel license that would allow portability within the Hotel property, but portability appears unlikely this session.
Information provided by the Park City Chamber/Bureau