Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dan Jones Poll Shows 58 Percent Of Utahns Support Eliminating Private Club Memberships, But Senator Mike Waddoups Staging A Fighting Retreat

A Dan Jones statewide poll of 413 Utahns conducted from January 15-17 shows that 58 percent of respondents favor eliminating private club membership requirements for alcohol consumption. To make this change more palatable to opponents, 67 percent support imposing a ban on minors from the bar areas of restaurants. The poll has a margin of error of plus/minus 5 percent. Media story published January 25th, 2009 in the Deseret News.

Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. has long called for easing Utah's liquor laws to make the state more tourist-friendly. His latest proposal is to do away with applications and fees required to join private clubs, Utah's equivalent of bars. Facing opposition from Senate Republicans, the governor has offered a compromise package that includes making the bar areas of restaurants off limits to underage customers.

And Huntsman said he wasn't surprised at the results. "I think the public is in favor, by and large, of moving some of these anachronistic practices into the 21st century," the governor said. "I think they understand the connection to economic development."

But not so fast, says District 6 Senator Mike Waddoups (R-Taylorsville), who still packs a powerful punch with 42 percent of respondents opposing change. Senator Waddoups not only has opposed changing the private club membership rules, but has sought to impose more stringent requirements upon restaurants serving alcohol, to include making them retrofit with higher screening walls to prevent kids from watching drinks mixed, at a potential maximum cost of $100,000 per restaurant. Senator Waddoups reminded the Guv that any change has got to go through him, and he's going to be a tough sell.

But not necessarily an impossible sell. First, Waddoups tried to minimize the poll results by attributing them to disproportionate publicity about the impact upon tourism, while claiming that there's been very little said about the effect upon underage drinking or overindulgence. Nevertheless, Waddoups conceded that there is room for compromise. For example, he supports the governor's proposal to ban minors from the bar areas of restaurants. As for private club membership requirements, Waddoups admits that "better ID-ing patrons" could be a satisfactory alternative. One popular proposal is for I.D. scanners to be used by bar owners. They cost up to $800 each, and versions which do not permanently store personal information are available.

Last week, Waddoups and other GOP legislative leaders met with officials of the LDS Church about the upcoming session. Church officials did not take a position on any issue, including the liquor proposals, but did express interest in electronic verification systems to check identification.

Asked to comment on the poll, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Scott Trotter, said, "The church hasn't taken a position on any proposed alcohol legislation, but reiterates its long-standing concerns about limited over-consumption, reducing impaired driving, and eliminating underage drinking." The LDS Church, which counsels its members not to drink alcohol, often weighs in on issues it deems moral. [Ed. Note: "Counsel" is somewhat of an understatement. Failure to observe the church ban on alcohol denies a member a temple recommend. There's "teeth" in that counsel.]

Senator Waddoups got a signal from the LDS Church earlier this past week that they had loosened their opposition to changing the private club law. But he's not going to give it away for free. He wants to execute a respectable fighting retreat from his previous position to maintain "street cred" with his GOP colleagues as well as with his constituents. I predict he'll buy off on abandoning the private club memberships in exchange for I.D. verification and a ban on minors in the bar areas of restaurants.

The final question is, what else will Governor Huntsman have to give up to get the Senate to go along with his alcohol reform package? Will the Senate ask him to "sandbag" on the Common Ground initiative so prized by Equality Utah? Or perhaps pressure him to abandon his proposed cigarette tax hike to $3.00 per pack? Or how about asking him to go slower towards ethics reform? But Governor Huntsman's high approval rating may deter Waddoups from turning it into a full-scale showdown.

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