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Two years after then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. pushed through dramatic changes to Utah's confusing liquor laws to boost tourism and economic development, state lawmakers are betting that enough time has passed to do some more tweaking in order to make it easier to get a drink in the Beehive State.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Provo, says he has been working for months to get "all the stakeholders" to agree to legislation he wants to introduce in January to increase the number of liquor licenses for restaurants.
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, introduced the same legislation in last winter's legislative session, but it was stymied by legislative leadership.
"It had good support," Froerer told me. "But promises were made to people after (the 2008 liquor law overhaul) that no more changes would be made. Froerer said that this year, after more time has passed, he will introduce his bill again in the House.
One difference between Froerer's bill and Valentine's proposal is a provision allowing a liquor license holder to sell it to someone else. If an establishment is struggling, Valentine said, the owner could sell his license, say for $10,000, and get something out of it, rather than just go out of business and get nothing. The buyer's motive would be to get a coveted license without having to go to the Utah Liquor Commission and compete for one available license with other contenders.
Froerer doesn't like the idea "because then it becomes a rich man's game, that a license will just go to the highest bidder and cut out the mom-and-pop operation that can't afford to compete that way."
But the concept that both bills will contain increasing the number of available licenses has a growing consensus because of the economic benefits. It comes down to business growth and expansion of the tax base for local governments, said League of Cities and Towns director Ken Bullock.
Currently, there are virtually no restaurant liquor licenses available, which means corporations are unwilling to invest money building a new restaurant when there is little chance of getting a license to sell liquor, a major component of a restaurant's bottom line.
The reluctance to bring in new restaurants has a ripple effect on everything else, says Bullock, because strip malls and shopping centers do better if they have a popular restaurant as an anchor.
Under Utah law, the number of restaurant liquor licenses allowed is based on the state's population. Currently, the number of available limited restaurant licenses (beer and wine only) is 307 and all of those have been issued. So there is no chance for a restaurant to get a limited license, according to figures obtained from the Utah Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, although another one might open up in November, based on new population estimates.
As for full-service liquor licenses for restaurants, there are 549 available and 547 have been issued.
Both Valentine and Froerer want to increase the availability of restaurant liquor licenses by transforming the current unused tavern licenses (beer only) into full-service liquor licenses.
Currently, based on population, there are 94 tavern licenses available, but only 44 have been issued. So under the proposal that Valentine and Froerer are pushing, 50 new licenses could become available for restaurants.
Gov. Gary Herbert was skeptical of Froerer's bill last session because of the timing, so soon after the 2008 legislation that did away with private clubs and introduced, for the first time, an open liquor-by-the-drink system in the largely teetotaling state. But this year, said Herbert's spokeswoman Angie Welling, he is open to discussions and is meeting with Valentine next week on the issue.
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