The Utah Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill in special session Wednesday that authorizes 90 additional liquor licenses for restaurants. Lawmakers and advocates cited a critical economic development need.
So if it was a critical economic development need this month, why wasn't it a critical economic development need during the Legislature's general session earlier this year? Could the worry about political survival have played a role in the timing?
Two key players in the liquor law negotiations were Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, and Gov. Gary Herbert. Both faced tough challenges in the Republican State Convention in April, a month after the general session concluded in March with no significant changes to the status quo.
Valentine has been the principal author of significant legislation involving liquor laws the past several years and chose to back off proposals to increase the number of licenses during the general session, despite pleas from the restaurant industry and commercial developers that the state's inability to grant new licenses was keeping national restaurant chains from building new establishments in Utah and, thus, hurting the state's economy.
At the time, Valentine was facing a stiff challenge in the GOP convention from Rep. Craig Frank, R-Pleasant Grove, who was promoting himself as the more conservative candidate.
Liquor is always a controversial issue in Utah, particularly in Utah County with its dominating presence of LDS voters whose religion eschews the use of alcohol.
The issue would be between the economic benefits of more liquor permits for restaurants versus the religious and ideological arguments against heightening the accessibility of alcohol.
Traditionally, the GOP convention tends to attract delegates more prone to the ideological threads of the right, making the appearance of alcohol tolerance a possible campaign detriment.
For the record, Frank was one of just 10 House members to vote against the liquor permit increase on Wednesday.
Valentine also had to deal with Senate President Michael Waddoups' strong personal opposition to the idea of more liquor permits, and those close to the negotiations say that with all the other issues demanding attention during the general session, that was difficult to do.
Once liquor was the sole focus during the special session, it was easier to make the argument to Waddoups, who came on board after assurances that liquor law enforcement would be enhanced.
The bully pulpit of the governor's office also was needed to help persuade legislators to go along with the thorny proposal to expand access to alcohol in Utah.
Negotiators say Herbert has always been supportive of the idea on economic development arguments, but he did not forcefully come on board during the general session. After the Republican Convention, Herbert made strong statements at news conferences that additional licenses were needed.
But before that, he had to be careful too. He faced challenges from several Republican foes at the convention, including Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-Lehi, who also voted against the bill in special session Wednesday.
Herbert already had ignited the ire of Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka because of his veto of the stringent sex education bill the Legislature passed in the general session.
Adding fuel to those flames by coming out strong for more liquor licenses probably was not seen as politically smart before the convention.
But Herbert came through in the end, leading the rally for the economic development cause.