SALT LAKE CITY -- A Wasatch County lawmaker is joining the fight to change Utah's liquor laws, even as a divide on bringing down the Zion Curtain seems to be evident between members of the House and Senate.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, has introduced legislation that would remove the curtain and also change the requirement for restaurants to serve liquor only to those patrons who have intent to dine. His 41-page bill, HB 285, is one of at least two bills expected to address a potential change in the state's existing liquor laws.
Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-North Ogden, is also expected to run legislation aimed at bringing down the 7'2" barrier required in restaurants that serve liquor to shield those mixing drinks from patrons -- particularly children.
Powell's bill would also remove restrictions related to sitting at a bar and would repeal credit for grandfathered bar structures. He told the Standard-Examiner the current restrictions hurt high-end restaurants in his area, which includes Park City, and sends a mixed signal to people who have second homes in the state.
"It has seemed to me an obstacle to getting the right balance between economic development and our culture and way of life, to have these sorts of laws in our area," Powell said of the state's existing standards.
Powell said he has seen no evidence the barrier or strict rules on patrons ordering food, before they are allowed to order a drink, prevent or impact a potential culture of alcohol, as suggested in a LDS Church apostle's plea to keep existing liquor laws in place.
"I don't think the Zion Curtain makes much difference for how people act and their behavior. Our culture will influenced by a lot of things in people's lives, but not necessarily by how government regulates their dining behaviors," Powell said.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, is one of the key lawmakers who doesn't think the curtain needs to be in place. She said she is interested in data that demonstrates a barrier, first put into place in 2010, leads Utahns toward the goal of eliminating underage drinking, eliminating overconsumption and reducing driving while intoxicated.
"If those are the goals, let's do those things that get us toward that goal," Lockhart said. She said the Zion Curtain doesn't really help achieve that goal.
The LDS Church issued a statement a week before the session, through Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve, urging lawmakers to keep existing standards in place and not to create a culture of alcohol.
Lockhart, Powell and Wilcox are all among the LDS legislators that make up the House and Senate.
As if she was comfortable taking a different stance that the church, Lockhart did not waiver.
"I'm comfortable taking my position on all kinds of issues," the speaker said.
Wilcox said the Zion Curtain is inherently unfair because the 2010 standard allows older restaurants to be grandfathered into a system, where the barrier isn't necessary, while newer restaurants have to deal with the standard. He also described shielding patrons from seeing a drink poured as silly.
But support to bring down the curtain is harder to find in the Senate.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the state has made some pretty sweeping changes over the past few years in the regulation of alcohol. He said it's important to see how they work. He described his colleague, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, as a real champion on the issue.
It was Valentine who brokered a deal last year between House and Senate liquor law proposals, which kept the curtain in place. It was also Valentine who suggested that a growing sentiment against the curtain, as evidenced by a House vote on the measure in 2013, was not reflective of the political will of the majority of state senators.
Wilcox expressed frustration last session that he had the votes to bring down the curtain, if the issue had come to a vote on the Senate floor. Valentine told the Standard-Examiner he has seen no clear evidence of support to bring the curtain down in the Senate Republican caucus.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, was among those lawmakers who voted to take the curtain down. He changed a popular quote from Ronald Reagan to the Soviet Union about the Berlin Wall to suggest what needs to happen.
"Mr. Valentine, bring down that wall," Nielson said.
It doesn't appear to be in any danger of crumbling.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said he hasn't seen specific liquor law legislation yet this year, but echoed Valentine's view that he doesn't see a lot of support for changing existing standards.
"That's the beauty of our current law as far as restaurants are concerned. You need to consume food along with any alcohol. The purpose of these laws is to keep people off the road that are intoxicated and to try and minimize the influence of alcohol on youth. I feel and most of the Senate majority caucus feel we don't need to change that," Niederhauser said.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, joked there is "no thirst" for liquor law changes.