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Utah's liquor control commission vents at legislature over lack of bar licenses

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Posted at 3:23 PM, Dec 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-22 19:48:54-05

SALT LAKE CITY — For months now, Utah's powerful liquor control commission has grumbled about a lack of coveted bar licenses to hand out to businesses who wait months in line.

On Tuesday, Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commissioners publicly criticized the state legislature and called for changes to liquor laws.

It started when the DABC Commission met to consider who to award the prized bar licenses to. Commission Chair John Nielsen noted they only had two licenses to give out, with 10 applicants waiting in line. Commissioners were in disagreement over who should get them.

Hopeful bar license applicants each spoke to commissioners about their struggles, including one that had been waiting 15 months to get a license.

"Over a year now and it’s definitely be challenging to me as a small business," the owner said, calling into the meeting.

Another applicant that waited 10 months was pleading for survival.

"I honestly don’t know how much more we can hold on," he said.

The DABC Commission ultimately voted to award bar licenses to Calavera Cantina in Salt Lake City and Unspoken in Ogden. There are no more bar licenses available until April, unless another licensed establishment goes out of business.

Each month, bar applicants try to make their case to commissioners, hoping to get their hands on one of the licenses so they can open and serve beer, wine and spirits to customers over 21. But under Utah law, bar licenses are handed out by a population quota — one per 10,200 residents.

The quota is a number the Utah State Legislature created to control how many bar licenses are available. Lawmakers have repeatedly said they limit the number of bar licenses so as to avoid over-consumption and over-saturation. A check of DABC records showed 177 establishments licensed as bars in Utah.

But Commissioner Jacquelyn Orton said they need to be able to grant more of them.

"I do feel strongly we need to be able to… we need to have the opportunity to grant more licenses," she said. "And I don’t feel like we’re anywhere near saturation. We don’t have bars going out of business and not doing well. I just wanted to put that out there. I’m very hopeful we will see some increases of licenses available in the coming year."

Commissioner Juliette Tennert questioned the methodology of the legislature's quota.

"I hope that our legislature does have an opportunity to take a look at this and, if not provide more licenses, at least provide more resources for making distinctions between these businesses or more guidance on policy for prioritization. We’re in a difficult spot," she said.

Commission Chair Nielsen expressed his frustration, calling on the legislature to address it.

"We understand that it’s life or death for some of these businesses, particularly in the current environment. It’s too bad that members of the state legislature can’t be here and listen to some of these pleas and the arguments," he said. "But I would hope there would be some initiative to adjust the allocation somehow so there are more opportunities for people to stay in businesses particularly under these difficult circumstances."

Reached by FOX 13 on Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who is tasked by the Utah State Senate's Republican majority with handling liquor legislation, said it was worth considering.

"We’ll certainly take a look at this license issue," he said.

Any bill would likely be considered in the 2021 legislative session that begins next month.