SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill that would dump 3.2 beer for heavier brews in grocery and convenience stores passed a critical vote in the Senate on Monday.
After a lot of debate, the Utah State Senate voted 21-8 to pass Senate Bill 132, which would raise the level of alcohol being sold in grocery and convenience stores from 3.2 to 4.8% alcohol by weight (6% alcohol by volume).
Other states have abandoned 3.2 beer, leaving Utah the lone state with the lower-point beer. The bill is being run as product is disappearing from store shelves.
"A lot of the manufacturers are taking product off the market. They’re actually reducing the 3.2 products because they have to be specially manufactured or diluted to a point to make 3.2 work," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton.
Mega-brewers like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors have already started pulling product from store shelves. FOX 13 first reported on the issue in 2017.
Other members of the Senate said this wasn't an alcohol bill, but a business bill.
"If we don’t pass this legislation, the constituents will have a much smaller variety to choose from," said Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City.
Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George urged support for Utah's 3,000 grocery and convenience stores.
"I think it is a business bill. I think it doesn’t have as much moral component to it as maybe some would suggest," said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton.
But the bill faced opposition. Local breweries have opposed the bill, arguing it favors the major breweries in competing for store shelf space. Some have asked the legislature to raise the alcohol level even higher. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a powerful influence on Utah's Capitol Hill, has said it opposes the bill.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, warned the bill would lead to increased public safety problems.
"I’m voting no on this bill. I think the next step will be to put wine in grocery stores," he said. "You say, 'Oh no, it’s not going to happen.' Mark my words: It’s going to happen."
The bill could lead to financial losses up to $23 million in state-run liquor stores, which could mean losses for the state's school lunch fund and public safety. However, Sen. Stevenson argued Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control could make up for the loss of heavier beers with expanded wine and spirit selection.
"We have the lowest DUI rates in the country, we have the lowest rates of binge drinking. I contend that responsible drinkers at 3.2 will be responsible drinkers at 4.8," he said.
The bill faces another vote in the Senate before moving over to the House. However, it faces a rough road there.
Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, who chairs the House Rules Committee, was non-committal about whether it would get a hearing.
"What we’ve had so far is a lot of spin and not a lot of facts," he said.
Rep. Hawkes raised questions about a loss of money for school lunch and public safety programs, DUIs and local breweries.
"Tell me there’s a crisis of consumer choice," he said in an interview with FOX 13. "I simply don’t see it."