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Liquor bill gets sensitive treatment

It's sent to a House panel for hearing and votes to get 'support'

You think that liquor is not a sensitive subject at the Utah Legislature?

Think again.

Monday, at the suggestion of House Rules Chairman Ben Ferry, R-Corinne, HB51 was sent to a House committee for a public hearing and votes even though it passed an interim study committee.

Normally, bills that have a fiscal note and are ready to go, and passed an interim committee, are sent right to the House calendar for floor debate and votes.

But Ferry said he and the sponsor, Rep. Chris Johnson, D-Salt Lake, thought it better that the bill go to committee so it could "get some support," as Ferry put it.

HB51 is titled "Exemption for Alcoholic Beverage Manufacturing License." It really is just a technical clean-up, Johnson told the Deseret News several weeks ago.

The bill makes it clear that Utahns over 21 years old can brew, at home, beer and wine for their own consumption. While that has long been the intent of Utah liquor law, it was learned last year that some locales interpreted current law to say that "homebrewers" — as they are known — had to get a manufacturers license and be subject to inspections by local health departments.

"This is not a great way to start this session off," said Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake, a minority member of the Rules Committee. She was concerned that Democrats' bills ready for floor debate were being sent to a committee hearing, stalling those bills' ultimate passage.

But Ferry said because of the "nature" of HB51 — i.e. a liquor bill, even though a minor one — it was likely best to have public debate over it so House members could learn what it was about and "support" could be generated.

"I understand the bill," said Ferry. "But look at its title; others may not."

Yet to be seen is a liquor bill pushed by GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. That bill, if it ever does surface, would be a major change — doing away with the membership fee and registration process in private clubs.

In effect, that would be liquor by the drink — since anyone 21 and older could walk into a private club and order an alcoholic drink without having to pay a membership fee.

Liquor may well be a controversial issue this session — with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints already issuing two statements on liquor control, one saying liquor is a moral issue and that people of good intents should be able to decide liquor policy, another saying church leaders have yet to endorse or oppose any liquor reform issues.