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Utah Criticized For Limiting Liquor Licenses


It's Friday, and for many people that means Happy Hour later today - unless you live in Utah, where those after-work drink specials are now illegal. It is also harder for a new bar there to get a liquor license. And some bar owners, even the mayor in Salt Lake City, are fuming. Whitney Evans of member station KCPW reports.



WHITNEY EVANS: It could take two years for bar owner A.J. Kekel to get a liquor license.

M: My application's been taken. My check has been cashed, and here I sit with just 3.2 beer and no liquor.

EVANS: Kekel owns the Graffiti Lounge in downtown Salt Lake City. He's already waited eight months for a liquor license, keeping his bar afloat with just low-alcohol beer.


EVANS: Kekel says he can't compete with surrounding businesses that do sell liquor and it's making it tough for him to pay his mortgage and his workers. Back when he applied, he says, the state told him he'd eventually get a license.

M: But if eventually means two years or 18 months, there's a lot of businesses in the same boat as me that are going to lose everything over waiting on a liquor license that they should have had in two or three months.

EVANS: State Representative Greg Hughes, who supports the drink special ban and the quota system, says he sympathizes with bar owners, but the state has to consider other interests as well.

INSKEEP: We have Mothers Against Drunk Driving. We have other stakeholders that are worried about the safety and feel there is a role of government to regulate those licenses.

EVANS: Hughes also notes pressure from church leaders, namely the Mormon Church, the dominant faith in Utah. They strongly believe in avoiding alcohol. Most of the members of the state legislature and members of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control are Mormons who don't drink. Hughes adds the argument that Utah's liquor laws harm business doesn't pan out.

R: Utah has one of the stronger economies here in the country and we don't want any kind of arduous regulation to stop that kind of economic growth.

EVANS: The Utah Hospitality Association is taking the state to federal court, arguing it's fixing the price of liquor by doing away with Happy Hour and limiting liquor licenses. Hughes says that position isn't defensible in court.

R: Is it perfect? No. Are there still frustrations? Absolutely. But I think that if we were to just stare at beer specials or drink specials and say that the liquor laws are broken because of that one aspect, I think we fail to recognize some of the progress we've made in recent years.

EVANS: Progress isn't the word Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker would use. He says the laws are moving backward. He says just as the city made its liquor ordinances more straightforward, the state was making things more difficult. Becker has written several letters to the governor and the state legislature arguing these aren't normal business practices.

M: We should not be in a position, I don't think, in Salt Lake City of unfairly harming businesses, particularly in this economic environment, who want to open businesses and can't because they're unable to obtain a liquor license.

EVANS: For NPR News, I'm Whitney Evans in Salt Lake City.

INSKEEP: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Whitney Evans