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Goodbye private clubs

Published: 03/09/2009
Legislators and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. announced a deal Monday that would make the most sweeping changes in decades to Utah's liquor laws, including an end to the state's one-of-a-kind private-club law.

Huntsman, who made doing away with the nettlesome club law a priority before the session, said it was a task that "many thought to be quite impossible early on."

"This is something that doesn't happen often. It is a rare occurrence, and today we have something to show for it," the governor said at a news conference. "We're moving toward much bigger normalization today of our alcohol policy."

Huntsman has said that reforming the state's liquor laws would provide a major boost to the state's $6 billion-a-year travel and tourism industry.

The liquor-reform package was hammered out during weeks of intense negotiations with the governor's staff, legislators and representatives of the hospitality and restaurant industries and the LDS Church. About two-thirds of Utahns and more than 80 percent of legislators belong to the faith, which eschews alcohol consumption.

"[The church] is an important stakeholder in his area, and they have been giving their input just like any of the other stakeholders," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, adding that the bill could be debated and pass the Senate on Monday afternoon.

"We are now at the end of the session," he said, "with a major compromise that needs to move forward."

The compromise legislation would do away with private clubs, replacing them with a scanner to verify the validity of the identification presented by someone under age 35. Data would be stored on-site for a week. There would be no centralized law-enforcement database.

"What we're doing is modernizing with this law. It's makes sense and it's intuitive to scan IDs," said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, the House sponsor of the legislation, noting that Utah would be the first state to mandate ID scanning.

Before the session, 51 percent of Utahns in a Salt Lake Tribune poll said they wanted private clubs eliminated.
Art Brown, president of the Utah chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, warns the change would lead to more drunks on the road and more accidents.

"We are moving from private clubs to open bars," he said, "and they're a major source of DUIs around the country."

Brown would rather have all patrons scanned, so law enforcement could access the records if there is an drunken-driving incident, both for prosecution and so the bar could be held responsible if it serves intoxicated patrons.

Huntsman said he is confident that there are "appropriate safeguards in place" and that "on balance it's an improvement on both sides."

For restaurants that serve alcohol, the bill would do away with the so-called "Zion Curtain," a glass barrier that servers must walk around to distribute drinks to patrons. Under the proposed changes, bartenders would now be able to pass a drink to a patron across the bar.

New restaurants would need a separate area for mixing drinks, away from the view of children. Existing restaurants would be grandfathered, but might qualify for $30,000 in assistance if they chose to renovate to conceal the mixing of drinks.

Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said the demands on new restaurants would create a situation in which they are treated differently than existing establishments and might discourage eateries from locating in the state. The association, however, will not take a position on the bill until its attorneys have reviewed the language.

Part of the liquor-reform package also would toughen penalties for drunken driving: Repeat offenders could forfeit their vehicles; underage drunken drivers could lose their licenses; and bar owners could face more legal liability if drunken patrons are involved in accidents.

The bill is expected to move quickly through the Legislature, starting in the Senate. If it passes and is signed by the governor, the private-club provisions would kick in July 1; the restaurant changes would take effect May 12.

"Nobody thought this was doable," Huntsman said in an interview, "but, through it all, I thought we were going to get to an [agreeable] end point."