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SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers struck a deal Wednesday to allow beer with slightly more alcohol content to be sold in Utah grocery and convenience stores while a work group studies the issue.
Compromise legislation would raise the allowable alcohol content by weight from 3.2 percent to 4 percent for beer sold in retail outlets. The original version of SB132 that a House committee rejected last week would have raised it to 4.8 percent.
"We've definitely moved the needle with what we've done with this," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the bill sponsor.
The House passed the revised bill 61-14 on Wednesday and sent it to the Senate, which had overwhelmingly passed the first bill before it stalled in the House.
"There are some things going that we think we’re going to get to the finish line with this," Stevenson said.
A group of retailers, including Walmart, beer manufacturers and distributors, and trade associations that had pushed for 4.8 beer, supports the compromise.
"It’s a kind of a glass half full," said Kate Bradshaw, director of the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition, though she noted it would still be one of the biggest changes in Utah liquor law since Prohibition.
The deal also heads off a possible 2020 ballot initiative on the issue.
"For now, it pushes that off," Bradshaw said. "We feel like we've made progress."
The House Health and Human Services Committee gutted the original bill and replaced it with a task force made up of legislators, beer distributors and manufacturers, alcohol treatment workers and advocates for victims of drunken driving.
Committee members raised questions about whether selling stronger beers in stores would lead to more consumption, drunken driving and underage drinking.
The new version of the bill includes a working group to study whether the state should go to 4.8 percent beer but changes its makeup from the previous version. It also raises the excise tax on a barrel of beer by 30 cents. The law would take effect Nov. 1.
Stevenson said the bill won't add fees to beer sold in grocery stores.
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, called the measure "misguided" and said that lawmakers were making a "huge mistake" in raising the alcohol content while calling for a study at the same time.
"We've got the cart before the horse," said Thurston, who sponsored the bill that moved Utah's DUI standard to .05 blood alcohol concentration.
Thurston asked, what if the working group finds that stronger beer leads to more drunken driving, underage drinking and binge drinking?
"How are we ever going to go back? The answer is we're not," he said. "We're giving away the farm."
Utah is one of only two states left selling the lower weight beer after laws in Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas recently changed, leaving brewers to decide whether to continue what would be a specialty item for a shrinking market. The proposed law would still leave Utah among states with the lowest alcohol content for beer sold in retail stores.
Some products from major beer brewers, including Coors and Budweiser, are already disappearing from Utah shelves. A few of them would return if the bill passes.
"It doesn't give us everything we've lost in the marketplace, but it does restore some," Bradshaw said.
Stevenson said the compromise would allow about 88 percent of products to stay in Utah.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposed the original bill, citing the increased alcohol content in beer. It supported the substitute measure to create a task force.
On Wednesday, Marty Stephens, director of government and community relations for the church, said the proposed compromise is a "significant" improvement over the original bill.
"We also believe the interim study group will allow for the Legislature to better consider the public health and safety consequences of expanding access to beer with increased alcohol content levels. Although we still have concerns, we do not oppose the compromise bill as drafted and look forward to reviewing the results of the interim study group," Stephens said in a statement.