A full-blown scandal and scathing audits at Utah's liquor agency prompted Utah lawmakers to overhaul the beleaguered department, adding new authority for the liquor commission and new watchdogs throughout the agency.
"Overall it's very positive," said Richard Sperry, chairman of the liquor commission. "If there were a wish list of tools to give the commission, to actually have a better understanding of what's going on inside the department, I think [it's] hit many of them."
The reform comes after audits uncovered the former director steering $370,000 in no-bid contracts to his son's business and lax oversight from the part-time liquor commission.
Pending approval by the governor, the Legislature voted to expand the commission by two members and dividing it into two subcommittees one to handle licensing and compliance, the other operations and contracting so they can focus on specific areas.
The bills would establish an independent audit division and an advisory panels of restaurant and bar licensees to provide input to the commission.
Financial management would be transferred to the Utah Tax Commission under the plan, and the Department of Public Safety would gather data to determine if liquor policies actually work.
"[We have] restructured the department to provide more internal and external controls that leave the state and therefore the taxpayer less at risk," said Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden.
A number of other reforms, including Wilcox's proposal to allow state liquor stores to be privately operated, failed to get traction.
An effort to increase the number of liquor licenses to avail restaurant chains looking to move into Utah failed, as did an attempt to allow liquor sales on some holidays and to allow restaurant owners to sample fine wines at their eateries before purchasing them.
"Alcohol is never going to be finished," Wilcox said. "It's always something we're going to need to evaluate."