Gehrke: Lawmakers need to fix Utah’s 3.2 beer law before voters are asked to step in again

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Head brewer Clay Turnbow and Eddie Landa at Kiitos Brewing, a one-year-old Utah brewery that makes "green" or environmentally responsible beer. Kiitos is the only brewery in the state with a High-Efficiency Brewing System or HEBS, that uses 40 percent less water and 15-20 percent less grain. Thursday July 26, 2018 in Salt Lake City.

“Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did. I liked beer. I still like beer. But I did not drink beer to the point of blacking out.”

— U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh writing for the majority in the landmark case of Tastes Great v. Less Filling

Are you like Justice Kavanaugh? Do you like beer?

If you do, you may soon notice fewer options when you try to buy a six-pack at a Utah grocery store, convenience store and possibly your favorite watering hole.

That’s because, as of Oct. 1, Oklahoma got rid of its requirement that all beer in the state contain just 3.2 percent alcohol. Colorado will get rid of 3.2 beer in January and Kansas will follow suit in April.

With the vast majority of 3.2 beer sales going away, so are a lot of the varieties. Anheuser-Busch has already warned it could reduce its offerings by 40 percent. State liquor stores don’t have room on their shelves to pick up the slack without pushing out other products.

For at least two years now, stores that sell beer have been trying to persuade legislators to change Utah law. Each time, they’ve been brushed aside. The line of thinking is that maybe the impact won’t be that bad, so let’s wait and see.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

But now, the big beer retailers and wholesalers aren’t waiting around. This week, they formed a new nonprofit — The Utah Alcohol Coalition — to advocate for raising the alcohol level of Utah beer from 3.2 percent to 4.8 percent, which they say would ensure consumers don’t see brands disappearing from shelves.

Here’s where it gets interesting: In addition to the advocacy group, members are forming a political action committee and a political issues committee.

As I wrote back in April, there was already a discussion about collecting signatures and putting the issue before voters in the 2020 election. Now, with a political issues committee, they are poised to do that if they aren’t able to get a legislative fix this session.

“The group would want to keep all their cards available,” said Kate Bradshaw, a lobbyist who is leading the effort. “Hopefully, it wouldn’t be necessary to do that, but it would be an option.”

Obviously, they have some recent case studies to look at — the four groups that tried (and three that succeeded) in getting their measures on the ballot this year.

But an initiative is a big effort, so there are discussions internally that maybe they should go big — maybe include wine sales in grocery stores or by mail, things most states already do.

It won’t be easy, though, as we’ve seen from this year. It will cost several million dollars to get an initiative on the ballot and even then there’s a good chance it won’t succeed. Look at the pushback the medical marijuana initiative drew from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others. Those groups would certainly resist an initiative and, frankly, full-strength beer is a tougher pitch to voters than medical marijuana.

Think about it: It’s a lot easier to convince moderate church-going voters to help relieve the suffering of a kid with cerebral palsy than to help adults get a 30-pack of Keystone Light.

Chances are this group knows that and is using the threat of an initiative as leverage with the Legislature.

There’s another interesting wrinkle in the whole discussion.

You might think that the state’s local brewers would be on board with raising the limit since it would give them more flexibility. Some are, but generally speaking, they are not.

The Utah Brewers Guild has taken a position that, if the state gets rid of 3.2 beer, there should be no cap at all on the level of alcohol in beer sold at grocery stores.

“They don’t want a hard and fast limit,” said Nicole Dicou, executive director of the guild. “Any change that happens from the retailers and wholesalers is going to be better for the Budweisers of the world and not take into account the craft [brewers].”

But the local brewers know there’s no way the Legislature will go along with letting grocery stores sell unlimited strength beer. It’s a poison pill, as one local brewer told me recently. What it comes down to is their bottom line. With so many of the big, mass-produced beers potentially going away, it opens up a ton of space on the shelves and on taps for what’s left — the local brewers.

Ideally, it shouldn’t come down to million-dollar ballot initiatives or threats of ballot initiatives. It shouldn’t come down to local brewers capitalizing on a chance to force out the competition. And we shouldn’t have laws that leave people who like beer with reduced options or push them to higher-strength brews in the liquor stores.

There is a simple, reasonable fix that the Legislature can implement that will help Utah retailers, avoid another blemish for the state’s hospitality industry, won’t affect youth access to alcohol, and would avoid another costly expensive, time-consuming and ultimately clumsy ballot initiative battle. Up the alcohol level.

If they fail, we could once again see voters asked to step in and do what their lawmakers will not.