Two Utah bills could merge into one, making it easier to special-order wine and other liquor

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The view at the state liquor store in Syracuse on March 11, 2019.

Can’t get the wine or bourbon you want at Utah’s liquor stores?

One day soon, you might be able to order it through a state-run consumer-purchasing program being proposed in the Legislature.

This idea is the latest iteration of SB103, which has undergone numerous revisions during the 2020 session, set to end this week.

As of Monday, the measure’s second substitute was unanimously approved by the House Business and Labor Committee. The bill, which has already been approved by the Senate, will now be discussed in the full House.

Its sponsor, Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, told the panel the formation of a consumer purchasing program "will make it easier for people to special-order alcoholic beverages” not currently available in state-run liquor stores.

Under SB103, consumers could order any alcoholic product — wine, beer or spirits — as long as it is “for personal household use." They would pick it up at a liquor store of their choosing.

A similar bill, HB157, also is making its way through the Legislature. Sponsored by Rep. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, it would allow consumers to sign up for wine subscriptions or clubs. The measure has passed the House and is set for a second reading in the Senate.

Under both plans, consumers would pay the cost of the alcoholic product — as well as the state markup of 88%, one of the nation’s highest liquor taxes.

Lawmakers questioned the need for two bills. But DABC Executive Director Sal Petilos said that, despite the technical differences, “feasibly, the two bills can be merged.”

“Both," he said, "recognize that the DABC needs to create a division” for consumer purchasing. SB103 and HB157 call for one-time funds — $428,000 and $1.2 million, respectively — to develop the program and have employees operate it.

For many years, the DABC has had a special-order process for the public, but consumers have found it onerous, slow and costly, because it requires a minimum purchase of one case.

It’s no surprise that many consumers protest the system by crossing state lines to seek a better deal on their liquor purchases and then, in violation of Utah law, bring those products back home.

Utah is one of five states — along with Alabama, Delaware, Kentucky and Mississippi — not allowing direct-to-consumer wine delivery, according to Free the Grapes, a national grassroots organization working to improve consumer choice in wine.

Officials with the Wine Institute, a public policy advocacy association, said that if Utahns were forced to pay the full 88% markup, it would make wines too costly and a wine subscription program would likely fail.

Shipping wine has been a hot topic this session, thanks to the growing number of residents new to the Beehive State.

The leaders of Domo — a software company based in American Fork — contacted McKell about sponsoring a bill. The company recruits many out-of-state employees who are used to ordering wine by mail and want the perk in their new locale.