Big changes to Utah liquor laws as lawmakers end session

By Michelle L. Price, Associated Press | Posted - Mar. 9, 2017 at 9:00 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah lawmakers spent the final day the 2017 session Thursday deciding the fate of bills covering a range of hot-button conservative topics such as guns and abortion while closing out a term that may be best remembered for big changes to the state's notoriously strict liquor laws.

The end of the session came after lawmakers a day earlier voted to ease rules hiding the preparation of alcoholic drinks in restaurants and approved a measure that will give the state the country's toughest DUI threshold.

Both proposals still need to be signed by the Gov. Gary Herbert, but the Republican has said he supports them.

Herbert said Thursday that he disagreed with the perception that Utah has a reputation as a place that's unfriendly to drinkers, saying liquor policies haven't stopped the state's economy and tourism from booming.

Legislators had planned this year to reform Utah's tax policies and consider passing a broad medical marijuana law, but both efforts died as lawmakers said they needed more time to study the issues so they can try again later.

They did finalize $16 billion state budget that gives state workers a 2 percent pay raise, covers growing enrollment in public schools and increases the money going to local school districts for teacher pay and other expenses by $120 million.

The move to ease liquor restrictions while tightening others mirrors recent moves by Utah leaders.

They've tried to balance appeasing a growing population of non-Mormon drinkers and increased tourism while upholding a deep cultural aversion to allowing an "alcohol culture," a perspective that stems from teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to avoid alcohol.

A longtime rule requiring restaurants to hide the mixing and pouring of alcoholic drinks would be relaxed under one proposal, though the barriers some restaurants use, nicknamed "Zion Curtains" may not go away entirely.

The proposal allows restaurants to stop using a barrier — generally a frosted glass wall around a bar or a back room for preparing drinks — if they instead set up a child-free buffer-zone around bars. Most restaurants in Utah are not currently required to have the barriers because the last big liquor overhaul only applied the rule to restaurants built after 2009.

The new proposal requires all restaurants to pick one of several options to set up their bar areas so children are prevented from seeing drinks being made. Officials expect some restaurants may build or keep Zion Curtains because doing so could save money on renovation costs.

The Zion Curtains have been a target of the hospitality industry for years but past efforts to roll back the rule met stiff resistance from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church has been a powerful moral voice on state liquor laws and its stance on issues carries weight with Utah lawmakers, most of whom are members of the faith.

The success of this year's proposal was fueled by support from the church, along with new alcohol abuse prevention programs paid for by a 2 percentage point increase in the rate Utah marks up the price on alcohol from the case price.

The proposal raises the markup to 88 percent for liquor and wine and 66.5 for beer with more than 4 percent of alcohol by volume that's only sold in state-run stores.

The proposal has been billed by some as another step forward for Utah's hospitality industry.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he doesn't think the change loosens liquor laws or makes them strange. "I think it modernizes them in an important way," said

But some legislators said that tougher DUI standards will hurt tourism and sends a message that drinking is bad. The measure lowers Utah's limit for a driver's blood-alcohol content to 0.05 percent, down from 0.08 percent.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, said drivers start to become impaired with one drink and the measure will save lives.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, says Utah should not pioneer the harsher standard because it will exacerbate the state's "weirdness factor."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, disagreed.

"You come to Utah and you're on our roads, you're going to be safer," he said. "So that should be an attraction for tourism."

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Associated Press reporter Hallie Golden contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Michelle L. Price

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