SALT LAKE CITY -- A legislative audit released Thursday says state lawmakers should consider making more liquor licenses available to meet growing demand in a rapidly changing state where more people are drinking alcohol than ever before. Utah limits the number of licenses available to bars and restaurants based on the population, leading to some of the lowest numbers of licenses per capita among the states where the government sells alcohol. One liquor license for bars is available for every 7,850 residents, and one license for restaurants is available per 5,200 residents.
Recently, there haven't been enough licenses available for businesses that want them as tourism has increased and more people who drink alcohol move to the state. In June, some bar applicants had been waiting eight months to get a license while restaurants were waiting three months.
State population estimates show about 60 percent of the state's residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which tells its members to abstain from alcohol. In 1989, about 70 percent of the state's residents were members of the Mormon church.
The audit says quota amounts for different liquor licenses haven't changed since 1990. Meanwhile, sales of liquor, wine and regular-strength beer have outpaced population growth.
In the past decade, the state population grew 22 percent while alcohol sales increased 54 percent.
Several national restaurant chains have expressed interest in opening businesses here but said they will not locate in Utah because they're worried they can't get a liquor license. The Utah Hospitality Association, which represents the state's bar industry, has said eliminating the quota system is its top priority heading into the 2011 legislative session.
State lawmakers have said they're wary about freeing up more licenses because they're not sure they want to make alcohol more accessible. More than 80 percent of state lawmakers are Mormon.
"We established all of those quotas for a reason," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville.
However, several proposals are being crafted to free up licenses for restaurants.
The audit suggested creating a single license for hotels and resorts to free up some of the many licenses they hold. For example, Snowbird Ski and Summer resort currently has 17 different licenses issued by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
That's an idea DABC commissioners, the Utah Restaurant Association and DABC staff support.
Other proposals lawmakers are considering involve allowing restaurants to sell their permits to the highest bidder. There have also been calls to transform some tavern licenses -- where only beer can be sold -- into licenses for restaurants.