SALT LAKE CITY -- A state lawmaker leveled more criticism against Utah's alcohol control authority, but pledged to give the agency more tools to run its liquor stores like a business.
"We need financial maturity here. We need to grow up! You have a retail store. We need to give you the tools to run it," Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne told the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission on Tuesday.
Sen. Mayne, D-West Valley City, appeared at Tuesday's commission meeting alongside Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton. Both spoke to commissioners about the state of affairs in the DABC. The agency has long been plagued with employee turnover, low morale, low wages, and working conditions in state-run liquor stores.
"You treat 'em... not so well," she said of employees.
Sen. Mayne said DABC employees make less than a night-shift worker at Subway. She spoke of a 24-year employee who only made $9.35 an hour. Part-time employees are excluded from health care and benefits, she said.
Sen. Mayne promised to run a bill next session to give the DABC more control of its own budget. The agency makes hundreds of millions of dollars, but the Utah State Legislature controls its purse strings. She told FOX 13 her bill would not allow the DABC to build more liquor stores or advertise its products in an effort to generate revenue, but would merely give it a percentage of its sales to run itself.
DABC commissioners were supportive of her ideas.
"We appreciate your honesty and your directness and your candor," Commission Chairman John Nielsen told Sen. Mayne. "Some of the things you have told us about and been upset about have been helpful. We are trying."
Sen. Stevenson told commissioners he was planning legislation (widely expected to deal with licensing), but vowed he would be "very slow and deliberate" with any changes to Utah liquor laws. He has been tasked by the Senate Majority Caucus to handle liquor legislation.
The remarks by the senators prompted some DABC commissioners to open up about the state of affairs.
"In your quest to change things, if you could get the legislature to look at this as a business?" said Neal Berube. "I'm not sure there's any other agency that returns this type of money."
Commissioner Oliva Vela Agraz expressed her support for paying employees more and showed some frustration about how alcohol is viewed in the state.
"In my view, we're always looked at like the Devil's child! It's the liquor," she said. "We have to get over that."
While the senators plan to tackle liquor policy together, a wild card has been thrown into the deck: Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, told FOX 13 last week he was planning to use his political action committee, Utah Progressives, to launch a ballot initiative to privatize liquor sales if nothing is done.
"He can certainly try to do that," Nielsen said in an interview Tuesday. "Whether or not it's successful is conjecture. I'm pretty sure it would not be."