Independence Day came early this year for people who enjoy tipping a few with friends without being subjected to oppressive regulations. Starting today, state Senate Bill 187 takes effect, and residents and visitors of legal age can walk into a Utah club and order an alcoholic beverage without first buying a membership. And so ends one of the most onerous restrictions on legal libations in the state since Prohibition.
Of course, there were trade-offs required to satiate the unfounded fears of legislative teetotalers who believed club memberships curbed underage drinking. So expect to have your driver license scanned if you appear to be under 35 years of age. But make no mistake, this is a landmark occasion, and, hopefully, just the beginning of expansive liquor law reforms.
While the state has loosened its grip, it still has a chokehold on the hospitality industry with a quaint quota system that limits the number of liquor licenses issued in the state. For the fiscal year that begins today, only 18 club licenses, eight full-service restaurant licenses and 15 limited-service restaurant licenses, which allow only beer and wine to be sold to diners, are available.
The Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission will meet with a legislative subcommittee this fall to report on the scarcity of licenses. It's too bad commissioner Mary Ann Mantes, whose term expired yesterday, won't be there to share her erudite observations. At her final commission meeting last week, Mantes called for the elimination of quotas. And she noted that there have been times during her tenure when there were no restaurant licenses to be had.
Utah allows just one club license per 7,850 residents, one full-service restaurant license for each 5,200 denizens, and one limited-service restaurant license per 9,300 Utahns. When the supply runs short it's a drag on business development and it costs Utah much-needed jobs. The current shortage also jeopardizes Salt Lake City's attempt to establish a downtown entertainment district and give the convention and tourism industry a boost.
Utah's Legislature is stacked with free-market advocates, but the hands-off policy doesn't apply to alcohol. What lawmakers don't seem to realize is that reducing access to alcohol will not deter hard-core drinkers who abuse liquor. It only penalizes responsible citizens and businesspersons.
Liquor commissioners should request a relaxation of the quota restrictions, or, better yet, relay Mantes' call for abolishing the archaic quota system. And the Legislature should oblige.
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