Liquor law reform: Guv, Legislature strike historic booze deal

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It's last call for Utah's arcane private clubs and befuddling 'Zion Curtain."

The Utah Legislature appears certain to pass the most sweeping liquor-reform legislation in four decades -- perhaps as early as today -- including doing away with the state's one-of-a-kind private club law.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who made elimination of the private clubs one of his pre-session priorities to boost the state's $6 billion a year tourism industry, said striking a deal on liquor policy was a task that "many thought to be quite impossible early on."

"This is something that doesn't happen often. It is a rare occurrence and today we have something to show for it," the governor said at a morning news conference. "We're moving toward much bigger normalization today of our alcohol policy."

The liquor reform package was hammered out during weeks of intense negotiations with Huntsman's staff, legislators, and representatives of the hospitality and restaurant industries and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Slightly more than 60 percent of Utahns and more than 80 percent of legislators belong to the faith.

"[The church] is an important stakeholder in this area and they have been giving their input just like any of the other stakeholders," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem.

The House and Senate each passed versions of the private club bill Monday afternoon. The House will likely come back today and approve Valentine's 193-page bill, which passed the Senate unanimously and includes some provisions that the House bill did not.

The compromise measure would do away with private clubs, replacing them with a scanner to verify the validity of the identification presented by someone under age 35. Data would be stored on-site for a week and there would be no centralized law enforcement database.

"What we're doing is modernizing with this law. It makes sense and it's intuitive to scan IDs," said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, the House sponsor of the legislation. He noted that Utah would be the first state to mandate the scanning of identifications.

Before the session, 51 percent of Utahns in a poll by The Salt Lake Tribune said they wanted private clubs done away with. Just 31 percent opposed such a move.

Art Brown, president of the Utah chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he believes the change will lead to more drunks on the road.

"We are moving from private clubs to open bars, and they're a major source of DUIs around the country," he said.

He would rather have all patrons scanned, so law enforcement can access the records if there is an drunken driving incident, both for prosecution and so the bar can be held responsible if they serve intoxicated patrons.

Huntsman said he is confident that there are "appropriate safeguards in place," and that "on balance it's an improvement on both sides."

For restaurants that serve alcohol, the bill would do away with the so-called "Zion Curtain," a glass barrier that servers must walk around to serve drinks to patrons. Under the proposed changes, bartenders would be able to pass a drink to a patron across the bar.

New restaurants would have to have a separate area for the mixing of drinks, away from the view of children. Existing restaurants would be grandfathered in, but might qualify for $30,000 in assistance if they chose to renovate to meet the new standard.

Part of the liquor reform package would also include tougher penalties for drunken driving: Repeat offenders could forfeit their vehicles; underage drunken drivers could lose their license; and bar owners could face more legal liability if drunk patrons are involved in accidents. Once enacted, as expected, the private club provisions would kick in on July 1; the restaurant changes would take effect May 12.

"Nobody thought this was doable, but through it all I thought we were going to get to an equitable end point," Huntsman said in an interview.


More liquor deal details

Would provides $30,000 in credits for restaurants that want to renovate to move the mixing of drinks out of public sight.

Would Increase the liability cap for bars and restaurants to as much as $2 million.

Would create a new umbrella license for resorts that operate multiple bars or restaurants and make it more difficult to obtain a convention center license.

Would require the forfeiture of an automobile for repeat drunken drivers.

Highlights of the liquor deal

Would eliminate private club membership and require electronic verification of anyone who appears younger than 35 years old.

Would eliminate the so-called Zion Curtain. Future restaurants could not have a bar; all drink mixing would have to take place out of the sight of the public; those restaurant bars in existence would be grandfathered in.

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