In Utah, you can eat when you're hungry and drink when you're dry, unless the restaurant doesn't have a liquor license. Then your choices will be limited.
That is putting a crimp in the state's economic development, which is why the Legislature, in its special session today, should pass a measure to increase the number of those licenses.
It has been obvious for more than a year that the demand for restaurant liquor licenses has far outstripped the supply, which is limited by population-based quotas in state law. Representatives of national restaurant chains have testified that they would expand in Utah if they could get liquor licenses. Apparently, the sale of alcoholic beverages is critical to their bottom lines.
Disrupting the expansion plans of restaurant businesses because of a liquor license drought is foolish in a weak economy that is struggling to keep its head above water.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, reportedly has legislation ready that would add 90 new licenses to the inventory. Fifty of those would be full-service licenses for all varieties of alcoholic drink. Another 40 would be limited to wine and beer.
The bill also would postpone the effective date of an existing law that, for the first time, would allow restaurants to sell their license with the business. That provision will be delayed because of concern that the current drought would drive license prices too high. In past debates on this idea, there has been concern that high prices would limit competition and favor large chains with deep pockets to the detriment of home-grown establishments.
Legislators who have opposed more licenses, including Senate President Mike Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, have argued that too many minors have been able to buy drinks illegally at restaurants. He claims that he has data to prove it.
We doubt that restaurants are a major contributor to unlawful drinking by minors, but if they are, they should not be. Valentine's bill will address this concern by providing four new compliance officers to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to police restaurants. In addition, the bill would provide additional overtime funding for Utah Highway Patrol troopers on 12 weekend shifts.
Alcohol abuse is a serious public health and safety problem, particularly among young binge-drinkers. Though it is unlikely that much of that takes place in restaurants, added enforcement is a good idea in tandem with more licenses.
Valentine's bill would provide both. The Legislature should enact it.