How Utah sells, buys and consumes liquor is always up for debate, especially when the Utah Legislature convenes.
During the 2021 session, which starts Tuesday, there are at least five alcohol-related topics that likely will be discussed, including wine clubs, pay for liquor store employees and the shortage of bar licenses.
Here’s what you need to know:
Revisiting wine clubs
A new law took effect in 2020 that allows the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to buy a wine subscription on behalf of an individual. Consumers who sign up pay the wholesale cost of the product — as well as the 88% state markup — and designate the liquor store where they want to pick up the goods.
So what happened to the program? When the pandemic hit, the $645,000 that was tapped to create it was rescinded, putting the highly anticipated buying option on hold.
Will lawmakers set aside money to fund the program this time? Or will other priorities take precedence?
Nothing’s certain, but Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, hopes to expand consumer access even more with the introduction of SB59, which would create a consumer purchasing division at the DABC.
If approved, consumers could order beer, wine and spirits that are not available at state stores. A designated DABC employee would help contact distributors and determine prices so consumers would know ahead of time what they are paying.
SB59 also would allow for the purchase of single bottles, Davis said. “Right now, people have to order a full case and sometimes they wait a long time and never hear back.”
Davis introduced a similar bill in 2020, but with a $900,000 price tag it got shelved.
Utah has been one of five states — along with Alabama, Delaware, Kentucky and Mississippi — that has not allowed direct-to-consumer wine delivery.
That distinction has frustrated consumers, especially during the coronavirus pandemic when shipping and delivery to homes would have been a way to avoid long lines at state-run liquor stores and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Raises for liquor store employees
After years of stunningly low wages, liquor store employees are leaving at an alarming rate, and the DABC is having a hard time finding new workers to fill their spots.
In June, DABC officials said the turnover averaged 86%, and the worker drain has cost the agency at least $1.2 million in recruiting and training time, as well as in overtime pay to cover staff shortages.
Since then, an interim legislative committee has been examining ways to solve the problem by giving the DABC more money in its base budget to help boost pay and attract employees.
“The DABC makes a lot of revenue for the state, but when it wants to fund something, it has to ask the Legislature for the money back,” Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, said during a recent committee hearing. That circumstance has led to “stopgap” measures that now require a “systematic fix.”
“It would mean less revenue returning to the state coffers,” he said, but “hopefully it gets rid of this incredibly rapid turnover and provides customers ... with the kind of experience they want and need when they shop at a liquor store.”
Finding more bar licenses
Utah has nine businesses waiting for a state bar license, but the next permit won’t become available until April. That delay frustrates owners as well as members of the state liquor commission.
“I am very hopeful that they [legislators] remember us in the coming session,” commissioner Jacquelyn Orton said recently. “We need to be able to grant more licenses.”
Orton said small business are at “huge disadvantage,” having a place ready to open but being stymied by the state.
Under state law, Utah can have one bar for every 10,200 residents. With a population of 3.1 million people, that equals 300-plus bars. Some argue that ratio needs to be lowered to allow more bars.
Before July 1, 2018, the ratio was one bar for every 7,850 residents. But the Legislature adjusted the ratio in 2017, when — among other alcohol changes — it eliminated dining clubs and restaurant barriers known as “Zion Curtains.”
Vaughn Carrick and Bryan Borreson waited more than 15 months for their bar license. They finally received it in December and were able to open Varley in the former BTG Wine Bar space at 63 W. 100 South in downtown Salt Lake City.
“We wish the Legislature would free up more licenses. It puts a huge demand for these business,” said Carrick, noting that bars are not going out of business, despite the pandemic. “Those that abide by the guidelines and the rules are good for tourism and the economy.”
Funding new liquor stores
What’s the best way to pay for liquor stores? In the past, the state has used its good credit rating to borrow and then repaid the revenue bonds using alcohol profits.
In his proposed budget, though, new Gov. Spencer Cox has suggested that the DABC take $33.1 million in one-time funds to pay for four new stores that will be coming on line. That would mean fewer alcohol dollars flowing back into the general fund.
At least one nonprofit group believes the cash should be used instead to help low-income residents.
“We’d rather see this part of the budget invested in housing,” Crossroads Urban Center tweeted. “The housing affordability crisis is real.”
New DABC boss
Early in the session, the Senate is expected confirm Tiffany Clason as the new DABC director.
A bipartisan pick, Clason previously worked as the district director for just-defeated Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, and as a former aide to retired Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
If confirmed, Clason would succeed Sal Petilos, who oversaw the DABC for 8½ years.