Utah’s ‘Mr. Liquor’ leaving Legislature to head Tax Commission
Sen. John Valentine, a fixture in the Utah Legislature since 1988 and the major force behind Utah’s liquor laws for the past decade, will leave the Senate to head the Utah Tax Commission.
The Utah County tax attorney, who is the second-longest-serving active lawmaker and was president of the Senate for four years, technically still must be confirmed by the Senate, but approval by his colleagues is almost certain.
"I’m sure there will be a lot of people celebrating that Mr. Liquor is leaving the Legislature," Valentine joked. "I’ll still be interested as a citizen to see what we do, because I think those policy balances are really important. I think the balance between the hospitality we show people who want to drink alcohol versus the social cost, I think we have to keep that balance."
Valentine will replace Bruce Johnson, who served on the commission for 16 years, the past four as chairman.
"Senator Valentine is a leading advocate in the Senate for sound tax policy and an outstanding public servant who will do a great job leading the Tax Commission," Gov. Gary Herbert said in a statement announcing his nomination. "He’s a well-respected tax attorney who has authored a number of the tax laws the commission will carry out. He is an honorable man and the ideal choice to serve in this position."
Valentine, R-Orem, said in April he and other senators met with Herbert and encouraged him to renominate Johnson for the post. But Herbert later contacted Valentine and offered him the job.
"I said, ‘No, no, not me. Let someone else do it,’ " the senator said. "But the more we talked, the more I thought about it over a period of a couple months, I decided, ‘You know, I could add some value there. I really could do some things that would be beneficial.’ "
While he has been a key player in Utah tax policy during his time in the Legislature, he is probably better known for his role in shaping Utah’s liquor laws.
He worked with Gov. Jon Huntsman to get rid of Utah’s law requiring bars to technically be private clubs requiring memberships and sponsored reforms allowing resorts to operate multiple locations with a single license and permitting liquor licenses to be sold.
But he has been a heavy foot on the brakes when it comes to liberalizing Utah’s alcohol laws, most notably resisting attempts to do away with the so-called Zion Curtain or Wall — the 7-foot barrier that restaurants must have to prevent patrons from seeing drinks being prepared. His legislation also did away with "Happy Hour" drink specials, and he pushed back against proposals to privatize Utah’s government-run retail liquor stores.
Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, which lobbies annually for changes to Utah’s liquor laws, said Valentine’s departure from the Senate could "open it up" for change.
"With his constituency and everyone he has to represent, I think he has done the best job he could to try to bring all the forces together," Sine said. "That hasn’t always been a positive situation for the industry and the image of the state."
Sine said there is not a clear successor to take over the liquor issues and perhaps several could step forward.
"Maybe it will open up greater interest for lots of other senators and other people to become involved and learn about it, rather than having one main source to rely on," she said.
Valentine considered running for attorney general after John Swallow was forced to resign last year amid a scandal that has resulted in criminal charges, but decided against it and has been co-chairman of a transition team for Attorney General Sean Reyes that recommended a number of internal changes in the office.
Valentine has not endorsed a candidate for his replacement, but said he probably will before the Republican delegates in his district meet in a special election. Valentine speculates that the three House members in the district — Reps. Brian Greene, Keven Stratton and Michael Kennedy — might consider vying for the vacancy, as well as former Rep. Holly Richardson.
"The hardest thing to leave in the Senate is all the people," Valentine said. "I’ve heard others say that, but now I’m facing the reality."