Utah's liquor laws make it difficult for responsible imbibers to get a drink and restaurants and bars to stay in business, a crowd of citizens and business owners said Tuesday during a meeting at Salt Lake City's Main Library.
The speakers were among 100 people attending an event called by a nine-member panel of business leaders formed to gather public feedback on mismanagement at the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC), uncovered in a series of state and legislative audits.
The DABC Review Committee was tasked by Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero and House Minority Leader David Litvack to come up with recommendations for overhauling the liquor agency, which will be forwarded to the Utah Legislature when it convenes Jan. 23.
But rather than take issue directly with the agency that oversees the $300 million state-run liquor monopoly, speaker after speaker placed responsibility for what they called confusing laws at the feet of the Republican-dominated Legislature, whose majority is made up of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which eschews alcohol.
The sentiments were similar during an online Twitter town hall meeting last week, which prompted about 250 tweets.
"People at the DABC do the best they can with the laws that the Legislature has given them to work with," said Jay Yahne, with The Hive Winery in Layton.
Spencer Young of Salt Lake City said teetotaling GOP lawmakers have passed unworkable and confusing laws out of "unfounded fears they have about drinking. They need to get over it."
Six Democratic legislators attended the meeting. Although Republican lawmakers also were invited, none attended.
The committee co-chair is Peter Cooke, CEO of PSC Enterprises and a retired U.S. Army major general, who is considering running for governor on the Democratic ticket.
Speakers criticized the Legislature for tightening state controls over alcohol. Recently passed laws brought back glass partitions, or so-called Zion curtains, that hide open bottles of liquor and bartenders from public view. Lawmakers also have refused to create any more bar licenses, despite a waiting list of 18 applicants. State officials have said it could take up to two years for more bar permits to become available.
Houman Gohary, co-owner of the Good Karma restaurant in Park City, said Tuesday she was forced to pay for a restaurant liquor license that was set to expire within days. She then had to immediately pay for that license, in addition to the renewal fee, under Utah law.
Restaurant licenses were so scarce in the fall that Gohary was among 13 applicants willing to pay fees that nearly doubled their costs rather than risk missing out on one.
"Why couldn't these charges be prorated?" she asked.
Speakers who called for privatization of liquor retail sales were roundly applauded.
David Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association, said grocery retailers stand ready to sell so-called heavy beer, wine and spirits in the event the Legislature ever approves such a move. He said grocery stores already stock and distribute controlled substances in pharmacies, and national chains have the experience of responsibly selling hard liquor, as well.
DABC review committee
Democratic legislative leaders have formed the nine-member panel to discuss mismanagement at the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, uncovered in a series of state and legislative audits. Members are:
Peter Cooke • Committee co-chair, CEO of PSC Enterprises and major general, U.S. Army, retired
Jeff Hatch • Co-chair, former Salt Lake County auditor and former president and general manager of KUTV-Channel 2
Stephen Schubach • Co-chair, CEO of Standard Optical
Scott Evans • owner of Pago Restaurant
David Cole and Peter Erickson • co-founders, Epic Brewing Co.
Brett Birt • vice president, Golden Beverage
Tamara Gibo • owner of Takashi Sushi restaurant
Kris Bodeen • co-owner of Tsunami restaurant
Dave DeSeelhorst • CEO, Solitude Mountain Resort