Bill to restructure DABC, little change to liquor laws
February 24, 2012
State legislation that would restructure the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control was introduced Wednesday by the House and Senate sponsors, Rep. Ryan Wilcox (R-Ogden) and Sen. John Valentine (R-Orem). The long-anticipated bills, which were put forward as a package in the House and the Senate, aim to fix issues with internal operations of the department, following scandals involving the director last year.
"The problem we had was that there were vague lines of responsibility and vague lines of authority within the DABC," Valentine said. "It was difficult for the commission to do what we asked them to do."
Input to the legislature ranged from privatization to absorbing the DABC into another state agency, but the bills put forward suggest modest adjustments. The bills would change DABC operations but make no changes to Utah’s current liquor laws.
If passed, the bills would add two more commissioners, bringing the total on the DABC Board of Commissioners from five to seven, and reassigning duties to allow three members to oversee licensing and compliance and three members to oversee DABC operations. The seventh member would be the board chairman.
Responsibility over money operations would be moved to the Utah Tax Commission and an internal audit division would be created, which would report directly to the DABC Board of Commissioners.
Last October, reports surfaced that the now-former DABC Executive Director Dennis Kellin used his position to funnel more than $370,000 worth of business to his son. Shortly after, legislators called for three separate audits of the department, starting the restructuring process of the DABC.
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"The money part of this bill is key to us," Wilcox said. "That’s where the trouble has been."
"The proposal right now reduces the risk for the tax payer," he added, "significantly."
Despite some discussion among legislators asking for more significant changes to alcohol distribution in Utah, what was proposed actually was on par with what was expected by several state and local organizations. Hans Fuegi, a board member of the Utah Restaurant Association and the Park City Area Restaurant Association, said he would have been more surprised if a bill proposing privatization made it out of committee.
"Our impression was that there were never going to be substantial changes to liquor laws during this session," Fuegi said. "It was more about fixing the issues in the DABC.
"We didn’t have very high hopes on privatization or making liquor available in grocery stores. It wasn’t realistic to expect on this go around."
Wilcox originally submitted a privatization bill last summer, but it never gained traction with House or Senate leadership.
"The difficulty with the privatization talks was that it was more of a policy call, and is more of a political decision," Valentine said. "The audit was focused on the management side, on how things worked in the department."
With all the discussion the DABC scandal brought on, lawmakers may expect a stronger push next session to make liquor laws more progressive.
"Of course we hope there will be changes in the future," Fuegi said. "How quickly and how substantially those changes will be, only time will tell."
The two bills were put together after months of discussion with several parties from industry to government to private parties, among them the LDS Church, the Utah Restaurant Association, beer wholesalers and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"We will have discussions on alcohol policy from now to the end of time," Wilcox said. "Generally speaking, alcohol laws have gotten more reasonable, but I’m still convinced that we have more control on (privatization)."
Wilcox said future debate over privatization will be made more substantial with a panel in the Department of Public Safety that would collect and analyze data on DUIs, underage drinking, over-serving, overconsumption and alcohol-related abuse.
"There is no current standard that we can turn to," he said. " We believe strongly that as we begin to focus our decisions on policy for the future, we’ll look to how new laws may impact those key areas. In the end, we’ll end up with better policy."
The two bills are currently awaiting committee review in the House and Senate.