[Liquor Laws] If members of the Utah Hospitality Association thought Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s endorsement of their plan to see an end to private club memberships in Utah meant DABC commissioners would rubber stamp it, they were sadly disillusioned.
This morning, the five-member DABC took up the issue at its monthly board meeting. The liquor control czars heard how well the state’s liquor stores were doing – sales and profits are up more than 11 percent. Then commissioner Bobbie Coray motioned for “a thorough analysis” of the requirement that bars charge private club membership. She said she had long sought to eliminate laws “that had no compelling reason.”
Commissioner Kathryn Balmforth, however, rose in stout defense of the private club restriction on bars, anchoring her position in the rights of what she termed the "non-drinking majority of Utah." She argued there appeared to be an attempt to “create an impression of a public groundswell” in favor of doing away with forcing bars to label themselves clubs and charge a $5 cover fee. “Maybe there is,” she said, “I just missed it.”
While some might sneer at Utah’s liquor laws for being different, she continued, those who wanted a drink could get one. “There’s nothing small-minded about the majority not being forced to pay for the costs of the societal abuse of alcohol.” Part of the DABC’s mandate, Balmforth reminded the audience of mostly bar owners, was to be aware of those who didn’t want liquor.
After complaining that only one side of the issue was being explored, Balmforth cited one reason why private club status was of value: record keeping. If a drunk left a bar and hit someone with his or her car, there would be a record of where and what that offender drank.
While Coray pointed out that private club membership was an issue she had long been concerned with, Balmforth appeared to find some back-door politicking going on. “We were all appointed by the governor but this is a legislative question,” she said. “I don’t think we have to carry his water on this particular debate.”
The commission voted, with the exception of Balmforth, to address the issue, including holding several public hearings. One commissioner noted, “This is the beginning of a long process.”
A number of unhappy UHA members walked out after the vote, one muttering about moralizing.
But UHA spokeswoman Lisa March McGarry said significant progress had been made. She said the UHA had been told that, for the first time, the Legislature and the DABC were willing to receive information from bar owners, the UHA, and other interested parties.
McGarry's concern, however, was that if and when private clubs were eliminated, additional elements might be added to the bill. One she described as a worrying “long shot” would require converting the entire penalty code currently used by the DABC to a criminal one, which “would be outrageous.” The main thing, she added, was the majority of commissioners had listened to tavern owners’ concerns.
Afterward, Coray said she didn’t think there was opposition from her own board to eliminate private club status. Rather, she said, “The concern is that we do it right.” (Stephen Dark)