Utah alcohol bill could make it easier to buy a bar license

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Sommelier Louis Koppel conducts a wine class at the former BTG Wine Bar in 2016.

A bill that would, among other alcohol changes, make it easier to buy a bar license from an existing club owner was introduced Tuesday in the Legislature.

But it’s unclear if HB399, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, would ease Utah’s current shortage of bar licenses or just help business owners with deep pockets.

Under current state law, liquor licenses can be sold to another person — whether it is for the same location or a different premises — but the transfer must take place within the same county.

Under HB399, bar licenses would be exempt from the county provision. That means a developer in Salt Lake County could — for the right price — buy a bar license from someone who operates a bar in, say, Iron County or Utah County.

In recent months, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has run out of bar licenses for potential business owners. On Tuesday, for example, the liquor commission had just one bar license for eight applicants.

To get a bar licenses, a Utah business owner must apply with the DABC and then wait until one becomes available through an increase in population — state law allows one bar for every 10,200 people.

A license could become available before then — if another bar shuts down and relinquishes its license. Businesses also can buy bar licenses from other owners, but that can cost a lot. This month, for example, a Layton bar license sold for $25,000.

Hawkes said he does not plan to adjust the population quota, which would create more availability or save small businesses the added expense of buying one.

“From a policy standpoint, a control standpoint, we really don’t want to be increasing the number of bar licenses,” he told Fox 13. “That is where we get a lot of our problems when it comes to DUIs and overuse, overservice.”

HB399 — which is a whopping 4,200 lines long and still must be discussed in a committee — modifies more than a dozen other provisions in Utah’s often-complicated liquor code.

Among the other proposed changes, the measure would:

• Prohibit alcohol manufacturers from promoting “the intoxicating effects of alcohol” or emphasizing “the high-alcohol content” of a product. Last year, when Utah allowed higher alcohol beer in grocery stores, many manufacturers put up signs that announced "stronger beer.”

• Allow law enforcement officers — arresting an individual for drunken driving — to ask where the operator obtained the alcohol and record the information.

• Create a new arena license for entertainment and sporting venues.

• Print the percent of alcohol by volume, or ABV, on beer in a larger font size “at least four millimeters high on a label” and “at least five millimeters high” on packaging.

• Allow minors to be in the bar area of a fraternal organization or country club if accompanied by someone 21 or older.

• Treat a day care as a school if “any part” of it is used as a public or private elementary school; secondary school; or kindergarten. Under state law, restaurants cannot get a liquor license if they are within 300 feet of a school, park, public playground or library.

• Issue multiple liquor licenses for businesses that share a kitchen.

• Give the liquor commission more power to modify, forfeit or suspend a liquor license.