Liquor Law Overhaul Has Club Owners up in Arms

Liquor Law Overhaul Has Club Owners up in Arms

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A major overhaul for the state's complex liquor laws could go to the Utah Senate for a vote as early as Friday, despite angry opposition from the state's only full-service liquor establishments.

"It's a backdoor done deal that included no one from the hospitality industry except a select few," said Daniel Darger, owner of Dead Goat Saloon.

Restaurants appeared to be the only clear winners as a Senate committee gave the 266-page bill quick approval on Tuesday, rushing it to the full Senate so it can hold a first vote Friday and final vote next week. That would send it to the House of Representatives with barely a week left in the legislative session.

Club owners protested a new rule that would prohibit them from employing family members under 21 in the kitchen. Minors would not be allowed anywhere in a liquor club under a rule that also would banish children of patrons from the dinner table or wedding parties.

"It would virtually wipe out our food business," said Mark Livingston, owner of Bogey's Private Club in Clearfield, Utah.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, made a revision allowing children into clubs that use a "significant barrier" to separate drinking and non-drinking areas. The change did little to mollify club owners, who said they'd lose significant income turning away families. These liquor clubs, Utah's only full-service liquor establishments, resemble country clubs more than saloons.

Valentine's legislation also ends what he calls the "wink-and-a-nod" that lets visitors avoid having to sign up or pay dues by asking a club member to sponsor them for a visit. Visitors would now be required to pay to sign up for a temporary membership -- $4 for three weeks.

Bob Brown, owner of the Cheers to You club, objected to another provision that would prohibit customers from ordering any drink over 12 ounces at the last call at 1 a.m. Most beer mugs contain 16 ounces, he said.

Clubs would have to stay open an extra hour until 2 a.m. without serving alcohol. Brown said it makes more sense to allow clubs to close as soon after 1 a.m. as they could as final customers leave.

Club owners also protested changes they said would leave them more vulnerable to losing a license because of any criminal activity by employees or customers on their premises.

That cracks down on club employees or customers who may be arranging drug deals, said Nick Hales, chairman of the five-member state liquor commission.

The Senate Workforce Services and Economic Development Committee made one change of its own Monday. The panel killed a provision leaving club owners defenseless to charges of mixing a cocktail with more than 2.75 ounces of alcohol.

The provision would have let undercover liquor investigators make an allegation without having to prove a drink contained too much alcohol, club owners said.

Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said her group was able to get seven of 13 changes it sought for the overhaul.

Most significantly, restaurants could serve wine without also having to stock hard liquor. That would mark Utah's first distinction between wine and hard booze, long considered the same under law.

If a restaurant wants to serve wine, it must take out a hard-liquor license and keep a full supply of liquor on hand even if it rarely sells the hard stuff. The overhaul creates a license just for beer and wine, "a good thing" for restaurants, Sine said.

Valentine delighted restaurants by scaling back huge liquor-license fee hikes. He agreed to lower proposed fees of as high as $3,000 to as little as $1,000 as part of a graduated scale.

Restaurants also like a provision giving counties and municipalities the ability to waive a rule that bans restaurants from opening closer than 600 feet to schools, playgrounds, homes or churches.

Local governments couldn't waive the proximity rule for liquor clubs or taverns, but that made little difference to Jaynie Brown of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

She said alcohol was evil whether it's served in a restaurant or tavern. Hales disagreed, saying over-consumption of alcohol is not a problem at restaurants.

"This isn't a good bill or bad bill," said Steve Barth of the Utah Hospitality Association. "It's both a good and bad bill."

Another change would increase to 63 percent from 61 percent the state's markup on all wine and liquor. Together with hikes in liquor licenses, that would raise an extra $3.3 million a year for the state, according to a fiscal note Valentine announced Monday.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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