Could voters upend Utah’s strict liquor laws next year? Robert Gehrke has the details.

The 2024 ballot initiative, if approved by voters, would privatize liquor stores, permit sale in grocery stores and allow mail-order wine.

Not long after Latter-day Saint pioneers came into the valley they began brewing beer. Orrin Porter Rockwell opened the territory’s first distillery and a whole section of downtown came to be known as Whiskey Street.

But in the ensuing decades, the church and, not coincidentally, Utah’s liquor laws began to become more strict. Utah backed Prohibition and a few years later, church policy was changed to require members to abstain from alcohol.

Brown-bagging and mini-bottles gave way to private club memberships, one-ounce pours and Zion Curtains (or the barriers meant to keep drinks from being poured where children might see).

We’ve made progress over the last decade, but now a ballot initiative looks to dramatically reshape Utah’s liquor system.

Jeff Carter is a former liquor broker who has seen up close how the system works — or doesn’t — and has filed the paperwork to put an initiative on the 2024 ballot to privatize large swaths of alcohol sales in Utah.

“We don’t want to buy it in state liquor stores anymore, and bars and restaurants deserve to profit from it,” Carter told me this week. “We should have every right to have the same access of other states.”

In a nutshell, the initiative, which is modeled after Wyoming’s liquor laws, would change the following:

  • Existing state liquor stores would be auctioned off to private operators by July 1, 2025.

  • The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services would continue to function as the central wholesaler and distributor.

  • The state markup on liquor, wine and beer would be set at 30% across the board (the current liquor markup is 88%) with a portion of the revenues continuing to be earmarked for school lunch programs.

  • The number of package agency licenses — the small liquor stores in rural parts of the state that generally operate out of a grocery or convenience store — would be increased, enabling outlets like Costco and Trader Joe’s to sell liquor, wine and heavy beer.

  • Customers could register for a license with DABS enabling them to receive wine by mail.

Implementing the initiative would cost the state about $126 million — with decreased revenue offset by reduced operating costs and revenue from the auctioning of the existing liquor stores, according to an estimate from the Legislative Fiscal Analyst.

Carter and I first chatted about the ballot initiative notion several years ago but he decided to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic before pulling the trigger.

Before you raise your glasses to celebrate, these ballot initiatives are incredibly difficult. The biggest hurdle Carter and his cohort face is gathering 134,298 signatures spread across 26 of the state’s 29 Senate districts by Feb. 15, 2024.

Assuming they manage to cross that tough barrier, they need to manage to get more than half of the voters on board — and you can bet that there will be opposition, including, one would have to assume, from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Church, which has resisted anything more than minor tweaks to Utah’s liquor regime.

“I’m not bashing on the LDS Church, but I don’t appreciate the influence they have on how other people live their lives. It’s not right,” Carter told me.

In other states, like Washington, that have seen successful ballot initiatives to rewrite their liquor laws, there were millions of dollars of backing from big retailers like Costco. Carter’s initiative doesn’t have industry backing — at least not yet.

That means that Carter will have to rely on public support, donations and some sales of merchandise on his website.

It’s an interesting proposal. Making it easier to join a wine club and have it delivered directly to your home makes sense and can be done without kids having more access. Privatized liquor stores may well offer better service to customers and be more responsive to what consumers want than state-run stores.

My concern is that Carter may be trying to take on too much at once and is sure to get pushback. And, because just under a third of the state’s population consumes alcohol at least once a month, it is imperative that moderate non-drinkers are willing to get on board if it’s going to pass.

Carter knows that, but is undaunted.

“I’m serious about following this through. I’m not going to get the public all hyped up about this and not give it my best shot,” he said. “I want to see if I can make a change in Utah.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.