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Utah Legislature: More restaurant liquor licenses coming?

SALT LAKE CITY — A House committee proved perception is reality as it overwhelmingly approved a bill Wednesday that would provide more liquor licenses for restaurants in Utah.

Lawmakers on the House Business and Labor Committee lined up to support HB223 after its sponsor, Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, said the legislation is designed to promote business and economic growth, rather than sell alcohol.

"This bill is really mistitled," he said. "This is an economic-stimulus and job-creation bill."

Business leaders also spoke out in support of the measure, which would take unused "tavern" licenses and provide them to restaurants.

Coldwell Banker representative Steve Bogden said the "trickle-down effect" of attracting restaurants would provide benefits across the state.

"This isn't about alcohol," he said. "This is about business and growth."

Critics have said the quota system of granting liquor licenses prevents businesses from coming to Utah.

Froerer's amended bill would not eliminate the quota system but would change the ratios to reallocate existing licenses.

Currently, there is a waiting list for "club" licenses, but the proposed bill does not cover those licenses, said Utah Department of Alcohol Beverage Control deputy director John Freeman.

"In general, clubs and taverns are places where people are more likely to become impaired," he said. "Restaurants generally enhance a community, while not everyone feels the same way about taverns and clubs."

Sidestepping the controversial club issue, at least this year, may give the measure a better chance of success, Froerer said.

Taylorsville Mayor Russ Wall said the lack of liquor licenses for restaurants has prevented his city from attracting new businesses.

"Liquor licenses are usually the first question, and if we can't get past that, the conversation is over," he said.

Rep. Curt Webb cast the lone dissenting vote after he tried unsuccessfully to hold the bill for another year.

The Logan Republican argued that decisions about alcohol in Utah "have always been deliberative," and there is not enough time left in the session to fully debate the bill.

Other lawmakers overruled Webb, saying the economic benefits are needed now.

"This needs to be discussed now," said Rep. Stephen Clark, R-Provo. "It's important that we move ahead with it."

The bill may be read online at le.utah.gov/~2010/bills/static/HB0223.html.

e-mail: jsmith@desnews.com