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State urged to change private-club law

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Most of the Utahns who testified Wednesday at the first of two public hearings on a proposal to eliminate the state's private club membership requirements for drinkers favored the change.

Members of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission listened for nearly two hours to comments from nearly two dozen people, including private club owners and their customers, as well as a few opponents.

Typical was Bob Brown, owner of a downtown private club, Cheers to You, who told the liquor commissioners the state loses tourist and convention business "because of the quirky laws we have here."

Brown said the No. 1 problem he hears about traveling to Utah from people in other states is having to join a private club by paying a membership fee and filling out an application in order to drink in a setting similar to a bar.

His concerns were echoed by representatives of the real estate industry, who paid for a survey that found some companies are reluctant to relocate to Utah because of the liquor laws.

"It's a big deal," said real estate broker John Gurr. "There's people who actually won't come to the state."

But Commissioner Kathryn Balmforth wondered whether that assumption really was true.

Balmforth, the only commissioner who voted against drafting legislation to make the change at an earlier meeting, said she's used to hearing such anecdotes, "usually from people with an agenda."

She raised the question whether Utah's liquor laws would need to be made "as liberal as the most liberal state" to satisfy the concerns. "Are non-drinkers to be disenfranchised?" Balmforth asked.

Bill Martin, who also represented the real estate industry, said the group only wanted "to change the quirkiness of the law so it's reasonable ... I'm not asking us to sell more liquor. I'm asking us to be polite."

Laura Bunker, a Bountiful homemaker and member of a new coalition formed to promote ethics and accountability in government, said the state's hospitality industry can be successful without relaxing the private club law.

"Utah has a great deal more to offer," she said, including its heritage, patriotism and culture. Bunker said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' popular Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii was a good example.

No action was taken by the commission after Wednesday's hearing. A second hearing on the private club issue is scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m., also at the department headquarters at 1625 S. 900 West.

It will be up to lawmakers whether to eliminate the private club requirements, likely during the 2009 Legislature that begins in January. The Utah Hospitality Association has filed an initiative petition with the state to put the issue before voters in 2010.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. backs the change and said Utah shouldn't wait until the 2010 general election. However, the LDS Church, which counsels its members not to drink alcohol and has been involved in other liquor law changes, has yet to weigh in on the issue.

"We're reserving comment until we see the final draft of the law," LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said. "Given the church's longstanding interest, we are in periodic conversations with many people who are involved with this issue."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com