It's past time for the Legislature to rejigger the population quotas that set the number of liquor licenses for bars and restaurants. It's a simple question of supply and demand. Restaurant chains are shying from doing business in the Beehive State because they can't get liquor licenses, and there is room to loosen the quotas without encouraging drunken driving and other forms of alcohol abuse.
Restaurateurs told an interim committee of the Legislature the other day that several major chains will not expand in Utah because they cannot get liquor licenses. That's because alcoholic beverages are critical to their bottom lines.
In the case of restaurant licenses, there's no rational reason to have a quota system at all. That's because people don't go to restaurants to get drunk. They go to eat. As a sideline, many patrons enjoy a beer or glass of wine with their meal. While binge drinking is a problem nationally and in Utah, that doesn't happen in restaurants.
But even if you accept the proposition that restaurant liquor licenses should be limited by quotas to prevent alcohol abuse, there is room to relax Utah's strictures. That's the experience in other states, even among the so-called control states that apply state monopolies to liquor wholesaling and, in some cases, retailing as well.
Of the control states in the West, Utah has the tightest restaurant license quotas. It's currently one full-service restaurant license for every 4,925 people. In Idaho, it's one license per 1,500 people. In Washington, all of the various licenses for alcoholic beverages combined cannot exceed one per 1,200 people. This quota has never been reached.
If you compare all classes of liquor outlets within control states, Utah's tight-fisted standards are readily apparent. In the Beehive State, there are .87 outlets per 1,000 people. In Idaho, there are 1.11. In California, 1.65. In Washington, 1.67. In Oregon, 2.37. In Wyoming, 3.13.
Research has shown that the total number of licenses is not as important to controlling alcohol abuse as is the concentration of outlets in a single neighborhood. Utah already does this by limiting the number of bars per block and the proximity of alcohol outlets to schools and churches.
It would make more sense for Utah to loosen its quota system for licenses and focus more funding on enforcement and alcohol rehabilitation. It could do that by devoting 10 percent of profits from the state liquor monopoly to that purpose, about $30 million a year. The state now earmarks those revenues for school lunches.
That's another tie between food and drink in Utah that doesn't make sense.