A stalemate between Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah lawmakers is keeping in limbo the nomination of Commerce Department Director Francine Giani to the board that oversees the state liquor-control agency.
The deadlock means that for the first time in state history — at least for now — the voices of social drinkers will evenly match those of teetotalers on the board.
On Wednesday, the state Senate confirmed community volunteer and social drinker Olivia Vela Agraz as the sixth member of the newly expanded seven-member board. But the Senate refused to consider the nomination of Giani, a self-described nondrinker, leaving one slot open for the foreseeable future.
With the appointment, the board is made up of three members who have publicly stated that they do not consume alcohol and three who do. This marks the first time in Mormon-dominated Utah that non-drinkers haven’t dominated the makeup of a group that presides over the state-run liquor monopoly, which generates $100 million annually in profit and operates with a $300 million budget.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches its members to eschew alcohol.
The board sets liquor-control policy, governs staffers within the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and issues and revokes alcohol permits. Self-proclaimed teetotalers have made up its majority since the 1930s when Prohibition was repealed and Utah became a liquor-control state.
Despite the new makeup, which may last only until a seventh member is appointed in the months ahead, don’t expect any revolutionary changes in the way the board conducts its business, according to those familiar with its workings.
Member Kathleen McConkie Collinwood said she doesn’t sense a division on the commission between drinkers and nondrinkers.
Fellow commissioner Constance White offered the perspective that although she thinks boards are best served when at least some members represent the industries they help regulate, “I’m not sure a drinker qualifies more than anyone else on the liquor board.”
As for the stalemate between Gov. Herbert and lawmakers, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said the appointment of Giani would raise concerns about the head of one state department serving on the commission of another. Giani also is a member of the governor’s cabinet.
“It confuses the lines of authority back to the governor,” said Valentine. “This has nothing to do with [Giani’s] qualifications, it has to do with the position.”
Ally Isom, Herbert’s spokesperson, said he “remains convinced that Francine Giani is completely qualified and could make a meaningful contribution to the DABC board. He will continue to work with the Senate to see if differences can be resolved.”
Giani, who has worked in state government for nearly 30 years, has directed the Commerce Department since 2005. Last year, Herbert appointed her as interim director of the DABC in an effort to clean up the liquor agency, which has been stung by several critical legislative audits that found flaws in its operations and possible illegal actions by some personnel. Virtually all of the agency’s top executives have been fired or have resigned.
Giani, who is Mormon, is known for her fierce loyalty to Herbert, but also sees the availability of more liquor licenses as an economic development tool — which reportedly has raised concerns with the hierarchy of the LDS Church. Few appointments to the DABC board are made or new liquor laws adopted without at least the tacit approval of the church.
Her nomination to the board is set to expire at the end of this month, 90 days after Herbert first announced it. Unless the issue is quickly resolved, it’s likely the board will be short one member until next year, when the Legislature reconvenes.
If history is any indication, whoever is confirmed to the board will be a teetotaler, keeping the tradition of imbibers as a minority voice. More than 80 percent of the Utah Legislature are members of the LDS Church.
Other social drinkers on the board are White, an attorney and former Commerce Department director, and financier Jeffrey Wright. Nondrinkers are liquor board chairman Richard Sperry, a physician, and attorneys Collinwood and David Gladwell.
It wasn’t until 1992 that Vicki McCall broke the all-nondrinker tradition on the part-time commission, which was formed in 1935. She was a non-Mormon and the board’s first social drinker. The 4-to-1 breakdown remained until then-commissioner Gordon Strachan was appointed in 2007.
State liquor-control appointments
Approved • On Wednesday the state Senate confirmed the appointment of community volunteer Olivia Vela Agraz to the agency’s seven-member board
Approved • In September, the Senate approved Salvador D. Petilos as agency executive director
Held back • The Senate refused to consider the nomination of Commerce Department Director Francine Giani to the board.
Senate OKs State Records Committee member
The Utah Senate confirmed former state legislator and prominent blogger and Republican activist Holly Richardson to a position on the State Records Committee, which rules on challenges to open records requests from the public and media.
The unanimous confirmation came on a voice vote Wednesday.
Richardson’s nomination drew some opposition from the Alliance For A Better Utah, a liberal-leaning group that called for a public hearing on Richardson’s selection.
As a member of the state House, Richardson was an outspoken supporter of HB477, a bill passed late in the 2010 session that rewrote portions of the state open records law, restricting access to text messages and some other records.
She later voted to repeal the bill, acknowledging flaws in the process, and served on a task force appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert to study Utah’s records laws.