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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah grocery and convenience stores won't be selling higher alcohol content beer, at least not in the near future.
And the decision could lead to a citizens initiative aiming to get the issue on the 2020 election ballot.
A House committee Wednesday rejected legislation to raise the alcohol content by weight from 3.2 percent to 4.8 percent for beer sold in Utah stores, something the bill's sponsor expected.
"This bill, I believe, was sent to this committee for one reason, and that's to kill the bill," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the sponsor of SB132, which passed the Senate last month 27-2.
House leaders sent the legislation to the Health and Human Services Committee because "we know the makeup of the committee and I don't believe this bill will pass here," he told the panel.
"This is a commerce bill," Stevenson said.
Stevenson said he preferred the measure die a quick death but the committee took testimony for 45 minutes before voting it down 7-4. The panel, instead, endorsed a substitute bill that creates a task force to study the issue, one that advocates for stronger beer say is weighted heavily against them.
"The substitute is basically the land of no decision," he told reporters later, adding "in more general terms never, never land."
Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, who proposed the substitute bill, said the legislation has business and health aspects to consider.
"I think it's only fair that both sides of that get addressed, so are we a kill committee or are we committee that's going to look at it from a very important angle?" he said after the hearing.
Kate Bradshaw, director of the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition, said after the meeting that her group is among those considering launching an initiative to put the question before voters in 2020. The coalition includes retailers such as Walmart, beer manufacturers and distributors, and trade associations.
Bradshaw and Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, have little faith that the proposed task force would ever decide to raise the alcohol content in beer sold in stores.
Utah is one of only two states left selling the lower weight beer after laws in Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas recently changed. The proposed law would still leave Utah with the lowest alcohol content for beer.
Anytime there's that kind of a major policy shift, we think it's good to have a thorough study and to also look at both the benefits and the consequences of making that kind of a change.
As state laws change, brewers have to decide whether to continue what would be a specialty item for a shrinking market. Some products from major beer makers, including Coors and Budweiser, are already disappearing from Utah shelves.
Some committee members raised questions about whether selling stronger beers in stores would lead to more consumption, drunken driving and underage drinking.
Moving from the 3.2 to 4.8 would be a "modest" increase, amounting to less than a one-tenth of a tablespoon of additional alcohol, Bradshaw told the committee. Stevenson contends that responsible drinkers at 3.2 will be responsible at 4.8.
Laura Bunker, co-founder of Family Policy Resource, said teenagers are not responsible drinkers.
"Teens think differently and drink differently than adults. They don't social drink, they binge drink. It's sports to them," she said.
David Hancock, vice president of Maverik stores, told the committee the bill is not about if higher alcohol content beer will be sold but where it will be sold. State-run liquor stores already sell heavy beers. Maverik, he said, invested a lot of money into training employees to not sell to minors.
"If this bill is not approved, Maverik will lose over $2.5 million in sales," he said, adding if sales continue to decline the chain would have to consider job cuts.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came out against Stevenson's original bill but supports the substitute measure to create a task force, said Marty Stephens, the church's director of government and community relations.
Raising the alcohol content in beer available on store shelves by 50 percent is concerning, he said.
"Anytime there's that kind of a major policy shift, we think it's good to have a thorough study and to also look at both the benefits and the consequences of making that kind of a change," Stephens said.