Chairman of the Utah liquor board talks bar licenses, wine in grocery stores and the LDS influence on alcohol policy

John T. Nielsen’s eight-year tenure on the DABC board has included both harsh legislative audits and record alcohol sales.

(Kathy Stephenson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Liquor commission chairman John T. Nielsen talks with DABC employee Anita Knowley on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. It was Nielsen's last day on the commission after serving two four-year terms.

When John T. Nielsen was first asked to be a member of the state liquor commission in 2013, he was a bit apprehensive about taking the high-profile, and sometimes controversial, post.

Two years before, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control had been in turmoil. Its executive director had resigned and was facing criminal charges for mismanagement and taking executive perks.

“There was some trepidation,” Nielsen said, “because it was shortly after all of the controversy and I wasn’t certain that all of that had calmed down.”

Not only did the Salt Lake City lawyer and former commissioner of public safety accept the post, he stayed for eight years — serving the majority of that time as board chairman.

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His tenure — which ends this month — has had plenty of highs and lows, from harsh legislative audits and criticism over employee pay and turnover to record alcohol sales and a growing number of state-run liquor stores.

While he may have gathered a few enemies during his tenure, for the most part, Nielsen was praised for his leadership and analytical skills — and his calm demeanor — as he exited the volunteer post.

On the latest episode of “Utah Booze News,” produced by The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13, Nielsen offered his perspective on bar license quotas; the possibility of wine moving to grocery stores; and the influence that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has on alcohol policy.

His comments have been edited for space and clarity.

On public frustration with the DABC

“There’s a misconception about what the DABC does. We’re not a policy organization, although we have a certain level of policy decisions. But we do what the Legislature tells us and we administer the agency in accordance with state statute. While the DABC’s job is to make alcohol reasonably available, it also has to take into consideration the problems with overconsumption and public safety. Sometimes those are competing priorities, but they’re both very important issues that you have to keep in mind.”

On lack of available bar licenses

“I really think we need more bar licenses. By and large, most of the people — and almost all of those who line up for a bar license — are good operators. And many of them operate in rural areas where there’s a need. And with the changing demographics in Utah, there’s got to be consideration of making bar licenses available so people can do business.”

On drinkers vs non-drinkers on the commission

“There is this feeling out there that if you don’t consume, you have no business being on the commission. That is pure bunk. I can tell you — and the drinkers on the commission will tell you — that is irrelevant. We have an obligation to be fair to everybody and to follow the law. If people are good operators they ought to get a license, and we have an obligation to do that. But I totally reject the notion that if a commissioner does not consume alcohol, they can’t understand and they can’t be a good commissioner. Frankly, if you’ve been watching our commission over the years, some of those who drink are tougher on the industry than those who don’t.”

On moving wine into grocery stores

“I don’t see it happening in the near future. But all of our sister states — Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, the states of the South — it’s there and it doesn’t seem to be a real problem. So whether or not the Legislature can ever be convinced of that, I’m not going to hold my breath.”

On privatizing liquor sales

“I don’t think so, and I hope it never does. Why? Because I think that some of those states that have experience with privatization have found that it’s really not what they thought it would be. Prices go up, regulation is diminished. Revenues to the state go down. I’m not sure a referendum would pass here. I just don’t think it’s in the cards.”

On DABC funding

“We ought to get more money. I mean, we generate a lot of money for the state. And it’s been a real gripe over the years that the DABC is kind of the last entity that they think about. I recall a few years ago, when they yanked half a million bucks out of our budget during the waning days of the Legislature to fund a football team somewhere. And to me, that was just dead wrong and that hurt us. It set us back a year. It was eventually restored and they did the right thing. But, you know, we need a little more control over our finances. We’ve not been able to give enough money to the employees in our stores to have them stick around. We need more people. We need people who do stay and enjoy their work.”

On being more business-friendly

“That’s a fair comment. But that’s the way the entity is intended to operate. We have compliance officers to make sure that people comply with the law. And if people don’t like that, then they ought to go up to the Legislature and get a change. But we’re just trying to do what they tell us to do. We’re trying to be regulators. We’re trying to be fair. We’re trying to get people into compliance. And if people are not in compliance, they ought not to be in business, period. And I think that’s been our credo from day one. And we have revoked our share of licenses just for those reasons.”

On dealing with the Legislature

“I’ve been very pleased with those legislators that have been assigned to deal with liquor laws. Sen. [Jerry] Stevenson (who sponsors the majority of liquor legislation) shows up at every one of our meetings. And the members of the House have convened a committee to look at some of the the laws and they’re trying to be helpful. So congratulations to those legislators that have taken an interest in the agency and recognize what we do for the state.”

On special interests and Latter-day Saints

“The [LDS] Church — it’s got an interest in this. But we don’t always do what the church wants us to do, and I think we do what we think is fair.

“I have not had any direct contact with anybody from the church for years. But I do talk to their lobbyist. And he has an absolute right to talk to me as do the lobbyists for other liquor interests. And, you know, I respond to all of their questions as best I can. But I don’t consider myself overly influenced by any of the entities.”

On his proudest commission moment

“What I’ve tried to do is to be as fair as I possibly can with people. And I hope that that’s the reputation the commission has, is one of fairness and a commission that listens. And if, in fact, we’ve succeeded in that regard, then I’m proud of that and I can leave feeling pretty good about where I leave it.”

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