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Teetotalers may still dominate Utah liquor board

Teetotalers may still dominate Utah liquor board



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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah may have made recent strides to streamline its quirky liquor laws, but one booze-related oddity likely isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

The state liquor board is controlled by teetotalers and it appears it will stay that way.

Gov. Gary Herbert made his nominations for two spots on the five-member panel this week without asking if the candidates had ever had a sip of alcohol. In addition, neither nominee has ever worked in a bar or a restaurant.

"He looked for qualities such as potential appointees' experience and ability to contribute positively to the commission and the state," said Angie Welling, a spokeswoman for Herbert.

One nominee, anesthesiologist Richard Sperry, said he did not drink. Businessman Jeff Wright declined to comment.

Only one of the three current board members drinks.

Control of the liquor board by those who don't use the products they regulate has long frustrated bar and restaurant owners in this heavily conservative state.

"I've always said it's like hiring a lifeguard that doesn't know how to swim," said Dave Morris, owner of the Irish pub Piper Down and a leader in the bar industry's Utah Hospitality Association.

"You don't know what it's like to work in the industry, you don't know what we have to deal with," he said. "Then somebody puts you in charge of it? It definitely doesn't make much sense."

Sperry said he wasn't sure how his name came up as a nominee. He said Herbert didn't interview him, although someone on his staff did.

"It's true that when it comes to kind of the alcohol distribution business and consumption of alcohol, I'm probably not as knowledgeable as I ought to be and so one of my personal goals is to come up to speed and understand the business and the things that I perhaps don't understand now," Sperry said.

He said he believes in as little government interference as possible, but he's concerned about issues such as driving under the influence, underage consumption and overconsumption.

Wright is a founder and member of the board of directors of Struck/Axiom Creative Inc., which holds a state contract to promote tourism.

He said he met with Herbert, and their discussion focused on economic development. Wright declined to provide details.

"I think that the governor certainly wanted a balance and a business perspective and certainly someone who knew something about economic development and travel and tourism," he said. "We saw eye-to-eye on those issues."

Utah's liquor laws have long befuddled travelers and newcomers to the state. Only since July has it been legal for someone to walk into a bar without first filling out an application and paying a fee to become a member of what was technically a private club.

The old law was scrapped in an effort to boost the state's $7 billion a year tourism industry and make the state more attractive to possible newcomers who found the state odd.

Oddities remain, however. Bars must scan the IDs of anyone who appears younger than 35 and keep a record of who walked through their doors for a week so law enforcement can inspect it.

Bartenders must be hidden from view in newly built restaurants, an effort that Utah lawmakers say is necessary to keep children from wanting to drink alcohol.

Utah also bans the sale of regular strength draft beer and flavored malt beverages in grocery and convenience stores. It's also illegal to make a cocktail a double.

Herbert has said he likely won't consider changing Utah's liquor laws for several years. He faces a special election next year to remain in office.

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(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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Brock Vergakis Writer

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