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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate passed a sweeping alcohol policy reform bill Wednesday that allows restaurants to remove the so-called "Zion curtain" that shields diners from liquor dispensing.
Because the Senate amended HB442, it had go back to the House for another vote. Among the most significant changes from the previous version is reducing to 300 feet the distance restaurants that serve alcohol may be located from churches, schools and parks.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said he's "thoroughly convinced" the legislation is good law for the state.
"I think this establishes better policy than we now have," said Stevenson, the Senate sponsor of the bill.
The Senate approved the measure 20-9. The House quickly concurred 53-17 without debate. The bill now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert, who is expected to sign it.
Herbert told reporters Tuesday he likes what he sees in the proposed law.
"We see that our alcohol policies have worked well in the past, but I think this new addition will make them work even better in the future," he said.
Stevenson and House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, worked on the bill with restaurant associations, alcohol distributors, retailers and other organizations, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said the church appreciates the efforts to consider the many potential outcomes that follow any change in Utah alcohol policy.
"Utah has been well-served by sound policies in the past, and we believe there are many good elements in this bill that will serve the people of Utah going forward. Utah has always demonstrated an admirable commitment to protecting children, families and individuals from the harmful effects of alcohol abuse," Hawkins said in a statement Wednesday.
The legislation gives restaurants that serve alcohol the option of removing the so-called "Zion curtain," a 7-foot barrier that separates liquor dispensing from diners. In its place they can erect a 42-inch half wall that separates bars from dining areas; establish a 10-foot perimeter between the bar and seating areas; or have a bar in a separate room. Restaurants also can keep the existing barrier.
"It keeps kids away from the bars, and keeps them away from the pouring and mixing area," Stevenson said.
The amended bill also reduces the 42-inch barrier's distance from the edge of a bar from 6 feet to 5 feet. It also would allow children to be in the bar area with parental permission if the restaurant is crowded.
Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, was more concerned about the distance bars and restaurants that serve alcohol could be from churches, schools and parks. She noted the Japanese Church of Christ and Salt Lake Buddhist Temple in downtown Salt Lake City would not be able to fend off encroachment under the new law.
In addition to reducing the distance from 600 feet to 300 feet, the measure would not allow the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to grant variances as it does under the law now.
"This takes away every power the church has to bargain," Iwamoto said.
Stevenson said the DABC is constantly dealing with proximity issues as communities become more dense. Setting the distance and taking away the ability to allow variances would solve that problem, he said.
The bill also increases the markup on alcoholic beverages by 2 percent. The additional revenue would be used to create two school-based underage drinking prevention programs for eighth- and 10th-graders, and help fund performance awards, equipment purchases and information technology enhancements within the DABC.
The bill permits retail stores to display malt beverages in only two areas to keep them separate from other beverages. Alcohol also must be clearly labeled.
"We don’t need alcohol being sold in the soda pop aisle," Stevenson said.
The bill gives alcohol permit holders a phase-in period to adjust to changes in the law, including doing away with dining club licenses and making clear distinctions between restaurants and bars.
"We're not forcing anyone to remodel their restaurant immediately or tear down their wall," Stevenson said.
Dining clubs have occupied a middle ground between restaurants and bars in terms of how much food they’re required to serve. There are about 100 such establishments in Utah. Moving forward, 70 percent of their sales will need to come from food.
Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, said some dining clubs have invested hundreds of thousand of dollars with a business plan under the current law. Forcing them to operate under a new set of rules will put some establishments out of business, he said.
Stevenson said the businesses have worked within the rules, but the rules change and dining clubs have time to adapt.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, opposed changing the law at all. He said the bill is based on a premise that the state has "crazy" alcohol laws and is "playing to an image" that people can't get a drink in Utah.
"I have no idea the impact this bill is going to have on my constituents," he said. "It's really a 'trust me' bill."
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, voted against the bill, citing the ongoing argument for privatizing liquor sales in Utah.
"Just a like North Korea, Utah cannot run a $450 million business and have it come out OK," Dabakis said.