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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A small group of Utah lawmakers made a rare tour Thursday of a state-run liquor store and said they want to see if officials can take steps to run the state's alcohol control program more like a business and less like a government agency.
Alcohol is a significant business in Utah even though a large portion of the state's residents and legislature are teetotaler Mormons. How the state controls access and sales is a subject of constant debate as conservative lawmakers grapple with decades of strict controls but a growing population of drinkers who drive up sales and fill state coffers.
"We have a real sort of divided attitude about this in our state," said Sen. Brian Shiozawa, a Republican from Salt Lake City. "Some people say it's a necessary evil but on the other hand, we love the revenue."
Lawmakers on Thursday's tour of a specialty wine store and liquor warehouse in Salt Lake City sit on a committee that oversees part of Utah's budget dealing with business and labor. They didn't take any official action, but several expressed surprise at hearing how little some employees are paid and how much money the stores generate.
"I think there's some here that have probably never been in a liquor store before," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, a nondrinker who has been immersing himself in alcohol policy in recent years.
The Layton Republican said Thursday's tour was important to show lawmakers the issues Utah faces as it runs a $400 million a year business that includes 44 state liquor and wine stores.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, didn't go on Thursday's tour but says Utah's quirky policies and tight control have created embarrassing blunders — such as a Oktoberfest celebration that nearly had no beer — and are bad for tourism business. Instead, he thinks Utah should get out of the alcohol business.
"I don't think we ought to waste time trying to tweak these little things," Dabakis said.
Many legislators say they don't believe Utah will privatize the liquor industry anytime soon —if ever — especially because it brings in so much revenue.
Liquor officials told lawmakers Thursday about the fine line they have to walk as state law bars the promotion of drinking or buying alcohol, though the state liquor department tries to encourage sales of a particular bottle to keep inventory moving.
David Paul, who manages the Salt Lake City wine store, said if a particular product isn't selling well, they can reduce prices up to 46 percent over several months and try to stack the product near the front of the store to catch the attention of shoppers.
Sal Petilos, the executive director of Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, said it's challenging when part-time employees start at about $9 an hour, and those trained with knowledge about fine wines often move on to better paying jobs elsewhere.
Petilos also said some stores may need to be expanded or renovated. He said a 2013 University of Utah study showed that a least a dozen new stores are needed to meet demand.
Lawmakers said they will have to take a hard look at whether they can do more to run Utah's alcohol business like a retail operation — including letting the alcohol-control agency keep more of the money it generates instead of using it for other government operations and to stave off tax increases.
"We need to take a look at it in a different way to make sure that it's done right," said Sen. Wayne Harper, a Republican from Taylorsville. "We've got a large number of residents in the state of Utah who enjoy the spirits."
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