Liquor issues are often tough for Utah lawmakers to swallow. But a bill to issue 90 new liquor licenses to alleviate a shortfall among restaurants zipped through a legislative special session Wednesday without a hiccup.
"This is a fair balance between the concern of public safety and accessibility," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, the sponsor of the bill.
In addition to adding 50 full-service licenses and 40 limited-service licenses permitting only wine and beer the legislation adds four new enforcement officers at the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and provides funding for additional highway patrol troopers to conduct DUI blitzes.
The license bill passed the Senate 26-1 and the House 57-10. Lawmakers also quickly approved a measure to plug a $25 million hole in the state's education budget, shifting available money from other areas.
Restaurant developers have complained for years that Utah's tight quota on liquor licenses was strangling their efforts to expand in the state.
But Utah legislators had balked at expanding the number of licenses available until this month.
Senate President Mike Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, expressed concern that, of the 63 licensees cited for selling alcohol to minors in the past 18 months, 41 of them or 65 percent were restaurants. He said the additional restaurant enforcement was key in making the increase in licenses more palatable.
"I think we need to start out with a recognition that alcohol is regulated because it is a harmful product. It does harm when it is used in excess," Waddoups said. "It is in the State of Utah's best interest to protect its citizens, especially its youth, and I think that's something we're trying to do here."
However, Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said 41 violations in 18 months is miniscule, given how many meals the restaurants serve.
And DABC statistics show that 65 percent of liquor licensees are restaurants, meaning their violation rate is right in line with other liquor sellers.
Waiting list • There currently is a backlog of 31 applicants seeking a liquor license, according to DABC records, including several restaurants in the Wing Nutz, Buffalo Wild Wings and Long Horn Steakhouse chains.
Five of those awaiting licenses are part of the Wing Nutz chain, three are proposed Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants, and three are Long Horn Steakehouses.
Rob Reynard, an attorney for Buffalo Wild Wings, told lawmakers that the chain has one restaurants scheduled to open in Lehi and Layton and hopes to open at least four more in the state, provided it can get the liquor licenses it needs.
"Buffalo Wild Wings is very excited about the prospect of being able to get these licenses."
Linda Wardell, general manager of the new City Creek Center, said the mall has five vacant spots that could be either restaurants or retail space, but she expects the announcement of at least one restaurant that will serve alcohol.
To help pay for the additional enforcement, the bill would impose a 10 percent increase on the fees that businesses pay for their licenses a bump that restaurant owners are willing to accept.
"Even in hard economic times we can [handle] 10 percent or whatever it takes for the restaurant industry to grow and prosper," said Sine.
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, opposed the alcohol bill, warning there are likely to be consequences to making alcohol more available.
"The purpose of our alcohol policy cannot just be to attract restaurants to our state," Draxler said, suggesting the Legislature is losing sight of the dangers of liquor. "We are headed in a direction we should not be headed."
John Chevalier, owner of the Lighthouse, a sports bar in Ogden that currently only serves beer, said he has been waiting 19 months for a full-service club license, and it has cost him more than $100,000 in lost sales.
"It's not fair, it's not right that you're going to up the restaurant licenses and not look at the needs of the clubs," said Chevalier.
Valentine said that bars and taverns don't generate the same degree of economic development that restaurants do.
During debate in the House, Steve Barth, a former legislator and lobbyist on alcohol issues, sat in the gallery next to Bill Evans, a lobbyist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The LDS Church, which is the faith of more than 80 percent of Utah lawmakers, was consulted on the legislation throughout the negotiations.
"The church's position on alcohol is based on concerns about underage drinking, drunk driving, and over-consumption," said Scott Trotter, a spokesman for the faith. "We felt this legislation addressed those concerns and we did not oppose it."
In addition to expanding the number of licenses, the bill postpones a provision that would have allowed restaurant owners to sell their licenses as part of their business. The concern was that the shortage of licenses on the market could drive up prices.
A quick fix • Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, the House sponsor of the bill, said that the 90 new licenses should solve most of the immediate problems.
"That will get us into the next session when we can have some good discussion on whether the quota system needs to be expanded," Froerer said. "I do look at this as a solution to our current problem."
The Legislature also patched a $25 million hole in the education budget, the result of an accounting error at the Utah State Office of Education.
The money will come mainly from odds and ends in accounts in other departments. But it is not a long-term fix, and lawmakers will have to figure out a permanent fix when they meet again in January.
Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, cautioned that the state is not flush with cash and finding the money next year could be difficult. "The money is just not sitting there in a slush fund," he said.
The Legislature also made two technical fixes to a bill governing the hiring of outside counsel and expert witnesses by the Attorney General's Office and the state's nursing accreditation standards.
Lee Davidson and Lisa Schencker contributed to this report.
There are 31 restaurants with 33 liquor license applications pending. Below is a list of those restaurants:
Full Service Licenses
Wing Nutz • Park City, Ogden, South Jordan, Orem and Murray
Café Sabor • Garden City and Logan
Agave Mexican Cuisine • Sandy
Buffalo Wild Wings • West Valley City, South Jordan and Riverdale
Great American Grill • Ogden
Texas Roadhouse • Layton
Courtyard by Marriott • Provo
Long Horn Steakhouse • South Jordan, Ogden and Midvale
Millcreek Grill & Bar • Salt Lake City
Limited Service Licenses
El Rocoto • West Valley City
Ekamai • Salt Lake City
Sushi Monster • Farmington
Buffalo Wild Wings • West Valley City and South Jordan *
Piccolo Mondo Restorante Italiano • St. George
Casa Da' Visconti • Holladay
Mediterranean Table • Kanab
Bombay Bites • Riverdale
Eatery 1025 • Bountiful
Pig & Jelly Jar • Salt Lake City
Blue Finn • South Salt Lake City
Brick Oven • St. George
Flora Restaurant at the Boulevard • Holladay
Taste of India • Bountiful
* Buffalo Wild Wings has applied for both a full service and limited service license for its West Valley and South Jordan restaurants.