[i]Originally posted here .
Liquor Law Changes Measured
BY GLEN WARCHOL (c) 2003, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
A few months ago, a select group of insiders began the politically perilous task of revamping Utah's liquor laws.
Three major interests were represented: the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the hospitality industry and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Those involved in the informal meetings maintain the resulting legislation, which has not been made public yet, is not a backroom deal. For years the DABC has regularly gathered public input at open meetings, officials say.
"We started meeting with industry groups in May and June. But work on the concepts in the bill started five or six years ago," says Nick Hale, DABC Commission chairman. "By and large, the bill is the product of seeking public comment."
A quorum of the five commissioners were never present, Hale said, to avoid any taint of illegally closed meetings. Hospitality industry insiders confirm that no more than two attended the sit-down meetings. The Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union -- having received numerous complaints last week -- is looking into exactly those kinds of allegations.
That said, everyone involved with the proposed legislation -- which will be the first overhaul of the liquor law in more than a decade -- admits writing new laws is a sensitive and politically precarious task. In a state in which 70 percent of the population considers themselves members of the LDS church that forbids the consumption of alcohol, the issue of drinking and availability of beer, wine and liquor is highly charged.
"Alcohol regulation in this state is an emotional issue, an extremely emotional issue," Hale acknowledges.
Much of the concern comes from many of the state's drinkers, who see the sometimes arcane liquor laws as an intrusion of the LDS church into their lives.
Many are galled that the LDS church -- and no other religious or nonbusiness public groups -- was invited to participate in the drafting of at least the basic concepts of the new law.
"All the groups that have expressed an interest in the issue in the past were invited to participate," says Hale. "There has not been interest expressed by other religious groups in the past. We were putting a bill together on which we wanted to get input from everyone who has expressed interest."
Hale and others intimate with the process say the LDS Church's involvement was entirely through paid church lobbyist and former Liquor Commission chairman Jerry Fenn.
Fenn reportedly met often with Hale, representatives of the hospitality industry and DABC staff members, including licensing director Earl Dorius, who were hammering out the details of the new law.
Hale says Fenn's involvement was appropriate because the former commissioner not only knows Utah's liquor law in detail, but as an active Mormon and church lobbyist, is well aware of the church's sensitivities. (Fenn could not be contacted for this article.)
Still, following the controversy, Hale acknowledges, "In hindsight, we might have done it differently."
Tom Guinney, president of the Gastronomy restaurant chain [which has nine liquor licenses] and the point man for the hospitality industry on the proposed changes, says the new law would be a boon to all Utahns. The church involvement issue has been exaggerated, he says. "It [the process] reflects the culture of the state. And the culture of this state is a dominant religion."
Still Guinney says of the proposed law, "You'd be surprised at how little the church knows about it. Basically, attorneys put this together."
Not surprisingly, in an issue this politically explosive, few in favor of the proposed new law are willing to discuss any benefits beyond better enforcement of over-consumption and underage drinking.
They privately say they fear angering extremists on one side or the other of the issue and derailing the bill.
All agree the proposed new regulations would address three major issues: public safety, overdue administrative housekeeping and economic development.
* Public Safety: Restructuring the club license into four categories -- country clubs, dinner clubs, fraternal organizations and social clubs (which would ban minors), is just one of many ways the new law would make it more difficult for minors to drink.
Also, the new regulations would include provisions to close down so-called "nuisance bars," taverns that have a history of noise, police calls and violations of liquor regulations, or owners with felony convictions for drugs, gambling, prostitution or pornography.
* Administrative Housekeeping: Many DABC regulations -- everything from penalties for writing bad checks to the agency to DABC officials soliciting bribes to the use of sacramental wine in churches -- would be cleaned up and more rationally structured.
"We have attempted to go through the law and point out what is ambiguous, unworkable or silly," Hale said.
* Economic Development: Revamped language involving changes in "proximity" regulations would allow local towns and cities to grant variances on how close liquor can be sold to parks, schools, churches and libraries.
The existing law requires a distance of 600 feet from these areas, ostensibly for the protection of children.
Under the proposed regulation, Salt Lake City, for instance, could reduce the proximity distance to allow more hotel, entertainment and restaurant development near Pioneer Park, the new city library complex and college branch campuses downtown.
The law would also make it easier for businesses, as Guinney puts it, to be "welcoming to visitors."
Private clubs could offer $4 "visitor cards" good for three weeks, without the club sponsorship requirement that many tourists found off-putting.
Also restaurants would be able to apply for one of the new wine and beer licenses (no cocktails).
Approximately 235 would be available. Hotels, resorts and sports and convention centers would be able to serve alcohol as part of their catering and banquet services.
But these long-awaited modifications would cost the hospitality industry. Fees for alcohol licenses will increase steeply, possibly more than eight times for an initial license.
"Utah, at $300 a license, is the second lowest in fees charged in the western United States," Hale said.
Finally, the proposed changes related to economic development may be the most politically sensitive.
Supporters of the proposed legislation fear a reasonable and overdue overhaul of Utah's liquor laws will fall victim to a backlash from rural legislators, sometimes dubbed "neo-prohibitionists," who might see these changes as making alcohol too accessible to the public.
As one observer put it, "The biggest threat is legislators who will try to 'out-church' the church."