Lawmakers worry the fight over higher-alcohol beer might lead to a liquor ballot initiative in 2020

Utah Capitol 04

Some Utah lawmakers fear the failure to pass a bill allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell higher alcohol-content beer could lead to a liquor themed voter initiative in the 2020 election.

SB132 from Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, increases the alcohol content in beer sold outside of state liquor stores from 3.2 to 4.8 percent. The legislation is a response to market changes as fewer states are selling the lower alcohol beer – Utah is one of the last to sell 3.2.

There’s a conflict between the House and the Senate over the legislation. Senators overwhelmingly passed the bill, painting it as legislation to enhance commerce since stores could suffer declining sales because of declining product availability.

However, House leaders are worried about the potential societal impacts of increased alcohol content.

“Nobody is talking about how we’re mitigating the societal costs of this,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. “Nobody is talking about the potential for increased alcoholism, the increased access to alcohol by teenagers.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, hopes the two sides can find common ground on this issue in the final days of the 2019 session because he fears not doing anything could lead to a citizen’s initiative on alcohol on the 2020 ballot.

“It’s my opinion that the legislature ought to do its job and set policy,” said Adams.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Three ballot initiatives qualified for the 2018 ballot, two of which were largely driven by inaction by lawmakers on medical cannabis and expanding Medicaid. Those two initiatives were later altered by lawmakers.

In 2011, Costco funded a $22 million effort in Washington state to privatize liquor sales in that state. While a similar effort in Utah would likely face an uphill battle given the LDS Church’s opposition to liquor consumption, but Adams doesn’t want to take any chances.

“I don’t think we should legislate constantly through referendums. The referendum system does have a role in our system, the legislature is the better place to handle these issues.”

“If that happens, that happens,” said Wilson, seemingly unafraid of the initiative threat. “Big retailers are the ones who put this on the ballot in other states so they could turn their stores into liquor stores. I don’t know if that would happen here.”

On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee assigned the bill to the Health and Human Services Committee over the objections of Democrats on the committee who argued it belonged in the Business, Economic Development and Labor Committee. The move reflects House leadership’s view that the issue is more a public health than business discussion.

House Rules Chair Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, is that chamber’s de facto point person on alcohol legislation this session. He says he’s hopeful that there’s common ground on the issue, but he wants to have a robust discussion before a vote.

“I worry about the impacts of heavier beer in retail stores,” he said. “If we have more DUI’s, more drunk driving deaths, that is a concern.”

There’s one other issue at play. Republican lawmakers are worried about the potential for ballot initiatives to drive Democratic turnout in elections. Shortly after the 2018 vote, Republicans started talking about how the medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion initiatives contributed to their losses in places like Salt Lake County. They point to Rep. Ben McAdams’ upset win over Republican Mia Love and other GOP losses in the county as likely the result of the boost Democrats got from those ballot issues.

One lobbyist suggested that a failure to pass the heavier beer bill this year would lead to a referendum effort right away. Instead, they theorized the liquor industry would make some noise about a possible referendum prior to the 2020 session to spur action by lawmakers if they aren’t able to get the bill done this year.