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The acting head of Utah's liquor sales said Tuesday that having a part-time commission overseeing operations hasn't worked and should be changed.
"I do not agree with the model, and I know I may be flogged for that thought," said Francine Giani, who was assigned to clean up the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control after a purchasing scandal last year.
Currently, a five-member commission makes policy for DABC, oversees the operations of 44 liquor stores and roughly 100 package agencies and issues liquor licenses to bars and restaurants.
"There are so many moving parts every day and unless you are down there every single day … it's just impossible to have that model work and be efficient," said Giani, who also directs the Utah Department of Commerce. "The current model doesn't work. Don't call them part-time. They're not there four hours a day or every other day. They're there two to three hours a month, and they're busy."
Giani stressed to members of the Legislature's budget committee that oversees DABC that she was speaking only for herself, based on six months as interim director, and not for Gov. Gary Herbert. Even so, Herbert has said repeatedly that he would like to see operational control for DABC absorbed into the Commerce Department.
Legislators are debating how best to restructure DABC with some, including Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, arguing for keeping the commission structure in place, perhaps adding two members, and beefing up its oversight authority.
The negotiations over the oversight structure have been ongoing.
"We have a structural problem," said Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, a proponent of DABC reform. "We have an agency tasked with selling as much liquor as possible and being a control agency. It's frankly a schizophrenic model."
Wilcox has argued the state is bad at retail alcohol sales and shouldn't be in the business. He also argues that the state has no way to measure whether the control measures in place actually affect Utah's DUI rates, teen drinking or overconsumption.
Wilcox has been exploring several proposals for how to move the state-run stores to a more market-based approach, but they have met varying degrees of resistance from fellow lawmakers.
"That's still on the table," said Wilcox.
But Giani said she doesn't believe that proposals to privatize liquor sales would work.
"I don't think privatization is the answer," she said. "I think you would lose money that comes back to the state."
Utah sells about $300 million worth of liquor a year and makes $69 million in profit, which funds other programs and subsidizes the state's school lunch program.
Giani also said she would like to see the clerks at state liquor stores paid better. They earn just over $8 an hour, work part-time and receive no benefits.
"That's really sad," said Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville. "I think eight dollars, for the responsibilities they have, eight dollars is inadequate. Absolutely inadequate."
Rep. Brian Doughty, D-Salt Lake City, said a store manager told him that employees have left to take better-paying jobs at fast-food restaurants.
But Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said the state pays a market wage.
"We can artificially change that market if we want. We might get longer-term employees. We might get better employees," he said. "I'm not defending $8 an hour. I'm just saying that that's the market we're participating in for employees to do those jobs."
DABC review committee
A 10-member advisory panel appointed by Democratic legislative leaders came up with several recommendations. Among them:
The independent liquor commission should retain control of awarding liquor licenses and its rule-making powers.
The commission should relinquish oversight of wholesale and retail liquor sales to the governor's control.
The Legislature should reconsider private sales of licenses, saying the law favors national chains over local businesses.