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Private club law could become history within days



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SALT LAKE CITY -- Lawmakers have been talking about it all session long, but this could be the year private clubs become a part of Utah history. No one is toasting success yet, but lawmakers are close to eliminating one of the most controversial parts of Utah's liquor laws.

The private club membership law has been called a turn-off, inconvenient, even weird. From people who frequent private clubs, doing away with the law is getting this reaction.

"I really think it's, oh how can I say, more bringing laws up to date than necessarily loosening. Yes, they are loosening it, but it's becoming more in line with the rest of the country," said Salt Lake City resident Gerald Harris.

Gov. Jon Huntsman has been pushing changes to the law. He calls it a move to enhance the state's image for tourists. But this year, lawmakers have struggled between competing proposals to do that.

One proposal even strengthened the so-called Zion Curtain that separates a bar in a restaurant. Among the differences, however, common goals have emerged.

Underage drinking, overconsumption and enforcement of DUI laws are all elements of an early agreement that includes doing away with the private club system. In exchange, bars will need to have a computerized machine that verifies a person's ID.

The bill would also make a greater distinction between restaurants that serve liquor and bars; no minors would be allowed in a bar. And the changes would include a crackdown on DUIs: Vehicles could be impounded, bars could be held more liable and minors would have their licenses suspended.

Rep. Christopher Herrod, R-Provo, says similar laws are in effect in Canada, New York City, and even in Europe. "They have liberal drinking laws, but one thing they don't do is drink and drive. And so it's just time that we need to say, hey, you get one pass, but you do it again though, there's going to be some serious consequences," he said.

Herrod says in Canada, they've seen cases of drunk driving drop significantly since the law went into effect.

"New York City does it on its first offense, and they found that DUI incidents have gone down 44 percent because they've developed a culture of drinking and not driving," Herrod said.

Art Brown, president of Utah Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is soundly behind the bill as well. Brown says the law is a simply a start to crack down on the problem. "You're already looking at someone who's had a third DUI. So I think that's where we're going to start, with the forfeiture," he said.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said, "No one got everything they wanted. Our thought throughout this whole process is: Let's not let perfect be the enemy of good."

Details of the proposed new law are still being worked out. A final version could come as early as tomorrow or as late as Monday.

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Story compiled with contributions from Richard Piatt and Paul McHardy.

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