House and Senate Republicans dig in on split over retail beer sales

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) 3.2 beer on the shelves at Smith's Grocery in Salt Lake City, Friday, January 26, 2018. The selection of 3.2 percent beer in Utah grocery and convenience stores is expected to decline — as much as 40 percent — later this year. Some in the beer industry want the Utah Legislature to change state law to allow beer that is 4.8 percent alcohol in stores.

Rep. Tim Hawkes earned lots of laughs from his Republican House colleagues on Thursday as he reviewed some of the “weird” alcohol laws on the books in other states, from prohibitions against serving alcohol to animals to bans on beer advertisements that include depictions of Santa Claus.

But the mood in the House Majority Caucus room sobered significantly when the Centerville Republican pivoted to discuss fetal alcohol syndrome, liver cirrhosis and impaired driving.

“People lose their lives and limbs on our highways,” Hawkes said, adding that liver disease can see people “literally drink themselves to death.”

Hawkes was explaining his opposition to an effort to allow Utah grocery and convenience stores to sell beer with 4.8 percent alcohol by weight, up from the current 3.2 percent. A bill making that change passed the Senate in a 27-2 vote last week, but was hijacked by members of the House Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday to instead launch a task force to study retail alcohol content.

The bill’s sponsor Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, strongly objected to those changes, saying his House colleagues were looking to kill the bill through indecision. Stevenson — a powerful figure on Capitol Hill and the Senate’s budget chairman — said he had not met with his House counterparts on the issue since the committee vote and was not “in a mood” to negotiate.

“I’ve been working on this for three years,” Stevenson said. “I’m not ready to spend the next two [years] working on it.”

Stevenson has maintained that his bill is focused on commerce and related to changes in the beer industry. As other states have abandoned their 3.2 percent standards, major brewers have opted to discontinue their low-alcohol lines, which is expected to result in declining product availability on grocery and convenience store shelves in Utah.

That could mean a decline in revenue for Utah retailers, as well as additional strain on state-run liquor stores as beer drinkers are no longer able to make their purchases at grocery and convenience stores.

“We’ve got an issue here that I think needs to be fixed,” Stevenson said, “and I’ve kind of got my heels dug in.”

But in the House, Hawkes suggested the the Senate’s arguments around the bill ignore the health aspects of higher alcohol content in grocery-store beer. Stronger beers could contribute to higher rates of underage drinking, DUIs, depression and suicide, he said.

He said Utah is “weird” in the sense that the state is an outlier for its low rates of alcohol abuse and its associated problems. And whether that’s due to the state’s culture — a majority of Utahns and every House Republican are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which teaches abstinence from alcohol and drugs — or the state’s laws, Hawkes said, both are “mutually reinforcing.”

“I’m proud of that culture and I’m proud of Utah’s unique status,” Hawkes said.

None of the lawmakers present for Hawkes’ presentation expressed support for the original bill, while several voiced their implied opposition to lifting the legal levels of retail alcohol content.

“There are lasting, permanent, life-altering affects from the abuse of alcohol,” said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, “and we can point to hundreds of thousands of examples.”

The bill is currently awaiting a vote of the full House. If approved there, the committee’s amendments would necessitate an additional Senate vote, where Stevenson’s opposition is unlikely to see its current, altered form advancing to the governor for his signature.

Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this article.