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Broad changes for liquor laws

Legislation ends requirement for private club memberships

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. talks to the media Thursday about accomplishments in the 2009 session, hailing new initiatives on renewable energy and liquor-reform legislation.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. talks to the media Thursday about accomplishments in the 2009 session, hailing new initiatives on renewable energy and liquor-reform legislation.
Jason Olson, Deseret News

"Cheers!"

That was the spontaneous toast on the House floor this week to the success of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s effort to, in his words, "normalize" the state's liquor laws.

Under the terms of a hard-fought compromise between the governor, lawmakers and a number of interested parties, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, private club membership requirements have been eliminated.

The compromise comes as Huntsman is raising his national profile, prompting speculation he may be testing the waters for a presidential run in 2012. Liquor reform is one of a number of issues he's advocated seeking to solidify himself as a moderate Republican.

The governor downplayed what's being called a historic change to Utah's traditionally tough liquor laws, the most significant in decades. In a meeting with the media Thursday, he suggested new renewable energy initiatives were a more important achievement.

But, Huntsman told reporters, the new liquor law that mostly takes effect July 1 shows "we're a fair-minded people in Utah and we want to keep pace with the times. I think that is the message more than anything else."

He also said the compromise will be an economic boost to the hospitality industry and even suggested he'll sign the bill at a private club.

Huntsman sought the change in the state's private club laws to make the state more tourist-friendly. Now, customers will be able to walk into a private club, Utah's equivalent of a bar, without filling out an application or paying a fee.

They will, however, have to allow their IDs to be electronically scanned if they appear to be under 35 years old. That information will be stored on site for seven days and available to law enforcement.

The governor also got another change he wanted, the removal of the so-called "Zion curtain" barriers along the bar areas of restaurants. Customers could not be served over the small, often glass partitions, adding to the confusion.

Existing restaurants will no longer be able to seat underage customers at the bar. New restaurants, however, won't have that restriction because they'll have to prepare alcoholic drinks out of sight of customers.

Huntsman said requiring new restaurants to have a separate dispensing area amounts to "a half-step back" for the state. Still, he said, it was acceptable. "That became a very important part of the whole negotiations as it played out," he said.

He said that was better than the "10-foot wall" initially proposed to separate customers from drink preparations and that liquor reform was not worth doing if criticism simply shifted from one area of regulation to another.

The compromise took weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations to work out, participants said. At one point, the deal appeared to be falling apart over concerns raised about how restaurants would be affected.

The sponsor of SB187, the liquor reform bill that ultimately passed this session, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said it was a Democrat who saved the day.

Valentine credited Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, for a suggestion that "broke loose" the negotiations — applying the requirement that drinks be poured and mixed out of public view only to new restaurants.

"That was a real important breakthrough," Valentine said, that came at a critical time when the focus was on the "10-foot wall" he'd suggested.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who carried the governor's proposal in his bill, HB347, said it took a meeting last week between Huntsman and the stakeholders in the governor's board room at the Capitol to seal the deal.

"He's the one who did it," Hughes said of the governor. "I had an absolutely firm belief we would have a great bill we would pass — out of the House."

Getting the Senate majority Republicans on board, though, "took the efforts of the governor and some of the stakeholders," Hughes said, declining to be more specific.

In addition to the LDS Church, participants in the negotiations included representatives of the hospitality and restaurant associations and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The state's dominant faith, the LDS Church counsels its members to avoid alcohol and gets involved in issues it considers moral.

Valentine's bill was originally much different than the version that finally passed Thursday afternoon, to applause — not toasts — from the Senate.

The Senate GOP caucus had little interest in the governor's proposal to do away with private clubs. But that apparently changed after Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, helped spark a controversy over the government's role as "Big Brother" when it comes to alcohol.

Waddoups attracted national media scrutiny by talking about the possibility of using electronic ID scanners to create a state-controlled, centralized database of private club and maybe even restaurant customers. The governor quickly dismissed the idea as "Orwellian."

Soon, the question was no longer whether the state would eliminate private club membership requirements but what else could be included in the compromise. Waddoups, who had complained that restaurants were turning into bars, did influence that part of the compromise.

"The real problem for a lot of folks was the restaurant stuff," said Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, who said he prefers to drink in private clubs. "We let them have a little more leeway in the restaurants and they let us have a little more leeway in the bars. So we both got what we wanted."

The Utah Restaurant Association is less than enthused about the final product. "We took was was handed to us," association leader Melva Sine said. But the Utah Hospitality Association, which represents private clubs, has agreed to abandon an initiative petition drive to get a referendum on private clubs on the 2010 ballot.

E-MAIL: lisa@desnews.com