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Bar licenses, 'wine of the month,' and other liquor bills in the Utah legislature

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Posted at 8:30 PM, Jan 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-18 00:03:44-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has been actively courting the tech industry.

But as Silicon Slopes grows, some issues are impacting recruitment efforts for skilled workers. Among them? Utah's liquor laws.

"People have a hard time thinking about moving to this state because they think we’re a dry state," said Elizabeth Converse, the director of operations for Silicon Slopes Commons, a group that represents Utah's growing tech companies.

Silicon Slopes is not the only group that has pushed for changes to Utah liquor laws. So has the Salt Lake Chamber, the state's largest business organization.

Like it does every year, the Utah State Legislature will take up some bills dealing with alcohol policy. A number of lawmakers are drafting bills for the 2021 session to deal with liquor laws.

"The legislature is reluctant to modernize our liquor policy and in some ways for the right reasons. We want to make sure alcohol is staying in the hands of adults only, and preventing drunk driving," said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City. "Yet at the same time we want to make sure our state law is keeping up with the times."

He is considering a bill that would allow bars and restaurants to sell sealed, pre-made drinks under certain circumstances. It is something Utah's hospitality industry has been pushing for.

"It would allow restaurants and bars to innovate and to stay alive during this really scary time," said Sen. Kitchen, who is a restaurateur by profession.

But any bill on "take out" cocktail sales may not advance very far. Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who is tasked by the Republican majority in the Utah State Senate with running alcohol bills, said it was not a priority for them this session.

He is, however, considering a bill that may add more bar licenses. Utah sets bar licenses at a population quota of one per 10,200 licenses. But the lack of licenses has reached a point where commissioners for Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control have complained it is harming businesses.

Sen. Stevenson said the biggest issue to address is the DABC's budget and underpaid liquor store employees. As an agency that makes a half-billion dollars a year for Utah, the DABC doesn't control its own budget. Money from alcohol (sold at a mandatory cost-plus 88% markup) goes to the state's general fund, public safety and school lunches for needy kids.

Raises for state employees who work in DABC stores are needed, Sen. Stevenson told FOX 13.

"The people actually manning the stores and our warehouse employees, we are drastically undermarketed as we hire those folks and it’s hard for us to keep them and get the good quality we need," he said.

Another bill that has already been filed would allow consumers to import liquor from out of state through the DABC. Senate Bill 59, sponsored by Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, would allow third-party sales (like a "wine of the month" club) but pickup through state liquor stores.

Converse said liquor laws are a longer-term goal for Silicon Slopes, as they push for other issues like COVID-19 relief and affordable housing.

"It’s definitely a wish list," she said.