SALT LAKE CITY — The House Republican majority on Utah's Capitol Hill has tapped a new lawmaker to handle the often thorny issue of liquor legislation.
"I'm essentially being fed with a fire hose," joked Rep. Jefferson Burton, R-Spanish Fork, in a recent interview with FOX 13 News.
Rep. Burton will take over alcohol policy matters in the House following the resignation of Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, and the retirement of Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville. Rep. Burton, the former commander of the Utah National Guard who headed up much of the state's COVID-19 response under Gov. Gary Herbert, will be watched closely and lobbied heavily by stakeholders who both favor loosening liquor laws and tightening them.
"I don’t drink personally, but my background — if you know me, I’ve lived all over the country and all over the world — I understand and I don’t judge others," he said. "In fact, I value choice."
Asked about his views on alcohol policy in Utah, Rep. Burton said he was listening to all sides. He was meeting with advocates across the political spectrum and getting up to speed on an alcohol policy working group the Utah State Legislature maintains.
"We have to work at good policy that is well balanced," he said.
Asked if he believed liquor laws in Utah should be loosened, Rep. Burton replied: "I think that’s an open question, it’s very broad. I couldn’t say yes or no to that question. I think what we have to look at each issue in totality to decide what is the cost? Because when you loosen liquor laws, there is a strong body of evidence that it has a social cost. So are taxpayers willing to pay that cost?"
With Utah's booming population and multi-billion dollar hospitality industry, there has been increased pressure on the legislature to loosen liquor laws. Calls for change have come from even within government. Governor Spencer Cox and Utah's powerful Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services Commission have called for the legislature to re-work laws to free up more bar licenses.
Even his Senate counterpart, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, has suggested they revisit that issue (but the legislature ultimately did not re-work the quota of one bar license per 10,200 people).
"I think it needs to be looked at and considered," Rep. Burton told FOX 13 News, but quickly pointed out that other groups have a "totally different view on that."
"I'm too new to make any new commitments on that. I think it’s something we need to look at," he added.
Lawmakers this year did tweak Utah's unique legal definition of beer to allow some popular hard seltzers to be sold in grocery and convenience stores. But depending on how they are brewed, some will be yanked back to state-run liquor stores. Rep. Burton said it was something he expected the legislature would address again.
"I'm looking forward to getting to know Rep. Burton better and sharing with him the continued issues the industry is dealing with on hard seltzers and flavorings that weren’t addressed in the prior legislative session under Utah’s unique definitions," said Kate Bradshaw, the president of the Utah Beer Wholesalers Association, which represents major beer manufacturers.
Rep. Burton said he would like to see more funding given to addiction treatment services and he believed that bar inspections should be stepped up to ensure minors are not sold alcohol, the top violation for bars and restaurants each month. He praised the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services (formerly called the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control) for their work and said there are major benefits to being a liquor control state including increased funding for a number of programs.
Asked about the possibility of wine being sold in grocery stores in Utah one day, Rep. Burton did not immediately close the door on it.
"What I'm going to be looking at is what happens in states where wine is in grocery stores. What is the social impact? You’ve got to balance public health, public interest with the freedom and access to have the product," he said.