Massive liquor reform bill released; Lawmakers still struggling to find “Zion Curtain” compromise (Updated)

Utah State Capitol 43

 State House Majority Leader Brad Wilson’s massive liquor law rewrite was released Monday, only nine days before adjournment of the 2017 Legislature. And the issue of the so-called Zion Curtain is still up in the air.

In an afternoon press conference, Wilson said if his bill fails this session he is OK with that.

If it passes, that is fine also.

And if parts of it fail, but parts pass – you guessed it – he’s fine with that, as well.

HB442 is 4,432 lines long – a huge bill in any form.

But it is an exceptionally long bill for liquor reform.

Wilson, R-Kaysville, and his Senate co-sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, scheduled a 10 a.m. press conference on Monday, then quickly canceled it.

A gaggle of press tried to interview Wilson outside of the House Chambers, but he declined to talk.

Only after being told that Stevenson was talking to the press at the daily press availability after the morning Senate floor action, did Wilson walk to Senate President Wayne Niederhauser’s office and address the media.

Senate sources told UtahPolicy that the major roadblock continues to be the move away from dining club licenses, requiring those establishments to convert to a restaurant license to continue serving alcohol.

That would be a significant financial burden on those businesses, as they would need to change the ratio of food to alcohol they serve as well as alter their hours of operation.

Another problem is the bill calls for the establishment of a uniform distance barrier between minors who are in the restaurant and the preparation of alcoholic drinks – a “Zion Moat.”

Wilson told reporters that it is “offensive” to him to name the 10-foot “buffer” between a bar and family-serving tables a “moat.”

“It is a buffer,” said Wilson. And more than half a dozen states – including neighboring Wyoming and Arizona – have similar spaces between where liquor is served and where children sit.

In fact, said Wilson, under the current multi-faceted Utah liquor laws, children can sit right next to a bar in “grandfathered” in restaurants – something that few, if any, other states allow.

In the big bill, as written, the Zion Curtain – a 7-foot barrier that currently keeps newer liquor-licensed restaurant patrons from seeing the dispensing of mixed drinks and the pouring of wine and beer – is gone.

But in its place is a requirement that licensed restaurants must have a 10-foot area in front of a bar where minors could not sit – the idea being they would less likely be influenced to find liquor glamourizing.

Or they could just have their liquor dispensed in another room where minors are not allowed – like a separate bar area – which a number of restaurants already have.

The 10-foot buffer may sound reasonable for some large restaurants.

But some smaller establishments – especially if they are narrow side to side – may find that they can’t sit families with children almost anywhere in the establishment.

Wilson admitted that in his big bill all restaurants would have to choose – have a separate bar area, or go with the 10-foot buffer zone with an open, recognizable bar.

Niederhauser said Utah has already gotten into trouble by grandfathering in older restaurants – so he doesn’t want to do that again. In other words, he doesn’t want all currently grandfathered establishments – who don’t have the Zion Curtain – to allow children to sit close to a bar, as is now the case.

Wilson said he finds it odd that some people find it offensive to have a buffer or separate bar to keep children away from serving liquor, but say its OK that minors sit right next to a bar, where adults may be drinking freely.

So HB442 could mean some smaller restaurants would have to serve no liquor – which could really harm their profitability. Or have to close down.

It’s kind of a mess.

Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, said he’s concerned that some “mom and pop” restaurants, with slim profit margins, could be really harmed under HB442 as written.

While Wilson said he’d continue to talk to the two dozen or so “stakeholders” – including leaders of the LDS Church – he seemed slightly discouraged and done with liquor law reform as he addressed the media Monday.

With a week and a half remaining in the 2017 Session, time will become a factor at some point.

Even if the curtain doesn’t fall this session – and it is already late for such a massive liquor reform bill to make it into law – the bill does do some other things that liquor-sellers may or may not like, but the GOP-controlled Legislature wishes:

•      It raises by 2 percentage points the markup on liquor, wine, and beer – from 86 percent to 88 percent for alcohol — bringing more money into the cash-strapped liquor fund.   

•      Reorganizes the Board of Alcohol Beverage Control, going from 12 to 8 members.

•      Takes away from the board the power to waive the current restriction whereby a new liquor licensee can’t locate within 450 feet of a school or church.

•      Requires each licensee to develop a “plan” for teaching its employees how to serve liquor and to watch carefully not to serve alcohol to someone who appears to be drunk.

•      Reduces the number of liquor license categories from three to two, eliminating the dining club license. (The issue sources tell UPD was the hold-up to Monday’s supposedly-consensus press conference).

•      Establishes a new school program to teach minors the hazards of drinking alcohol and encouraging them not to start or do so.

So, there is still plenty in HB442 that lawmakers may want to adopt, even if the current Zion Curtain stays in place for new restaurants that seek to serve drinks to their patrons.