SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — State officials have handed out nearly half of the 90 new alcohol permits created by Utah lawmakers during a recent special session in a process aimed at shrinking the long waiting list for businesses wanting to serve spirits.
Forty new licenses were approved between June 26 and July 31, Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control spokeswoman Vicki Ashby said Thursday.
Facing criticism from some lawmakers and the hospitality industry, Gov. Gary Herbert called a special session in June to create the new licenses, acknowledging the limitations were holding back growth in the state.
Before the session, all 918 available licenses were taken. Utah limits licenses allowing the sale of beer and wine at restaurants to one for every 8,373 residents, and licenses that also allow the sale of liquor to one for every 4,925 people, Ashby said.
Restaurant and bar owners complain there aren't enough licenses, even with 90 newly created ones. They also say Utah's litany of alcohol laws — some 300 pages of state statute — are draconian.
"I think the liquor laws make us look like idiots," said Ken Wynn of the Utah Hospitality Association, which sued the state in federal court claiming the laws hurt business and limit free trade. The group also sought to have a federal judge block state legislators from considering input from the Mormon church when drafting future liquor laws.
More than 60 percent of the state's population belongs to the Mormon Church, which discourages members from drinking alcohol. More than 80 percent of the state Legislature is Mormon.
The suit was later dismissed after a judge found scant evidence to support the claims.
Daniel Darger, owner of The Blue Iguana restaurant in Park City, called the special session that added permits an exercise in "horse trading" that accomplished little.
Darger wanted a permit to sell wine and full-strength beer, but licenses weren't available at the beginning of June. So he recently obtained a license to sell low-alcohol beer.
He said complicated rules surrounding alcohol make it difficult for business in the state to invest or expand. One such law requires establishments that serve liquor to mix their drinks behind a so-called "Zion Curtain" outside the view of patrons. Critics say that law influences how businesses and bars have to design their establishments.
"I think the whole process is a misguided attempt at furthering some social or some moral values and the result usually ends up to be a shot in the foot instead," Darger said.
Herbert's office declined comment, saying he was out of state and unavailable.
Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, applauded the new licenses but said lawmakers need to address the larger issue of how the state regulates alcohol sales.
"It would be nice for it to be 20 pages or something like that," Cox said, referring to the lengthy and complicated statutes.
He said for now, the 90 additional licenses will be enough until lawmakers return in January to address the issue again.
"We do not limit how many attorneys we have in Utah. Why do we limit how many restaurants we have in Utah that can serve alcohol?" Cox said. "The whole quota thing I have some issues with."
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