Ballot initiative could privatize liquor sales in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY -- Fed up with his colleagues in the legislature, Sen. Jim Dabakis is threatening to use his political action committee to launch a ballot initiative to privatize liquor sales and do away with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

In an interview with FOX 13 on Tuesday, Sen. Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said he was frustrated with legislative inaction on loosening liquor laws that he said hurt businesses. He threatened to activate his political action committee, Utah Progressives, to gather signatures to get liquor privatization on the ballot.

"State control of the economy doesn't work in North Korea and it doesn't work in Cuba," he said. "It's a model that simply isn't there and guess what? State control of alcohol in Utah isn't working."

People wait in line at the Cottonwood Heights DABC store on Christmas Eve. (FOX 13 News)

People wait in line at the Cottonwood Heights DABC store on Christmas Eve. (FOX 13 News)

Sen. Dabakis has long criticized the DABC, which he accuses of being an ineffective agency. Earlier this year, he ran legislation to tear down the so-called "Zion Curtains" that prevent people from seeing drinks being made in restaurants. His bill went nowhere on Utah's Capitol Hill.

Sen. Dabakis argued that by getting rid of the DABC, Utah could still tax liquor sales at a high percentage, but move it away from the "prison-like" state-run liquor stores and into grocery stores and big box retailers like Sam's Club and Costco.

Putting liquor privatization up to a public vote would not happen until after the 2017 legislative session, the senator said.

"If we don't have changes this session, I think the rallying cry would be there and we'll begin serious fundraising and organizing," Sen. Dabakis told FOX 13.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, in an interview with FOX 13 News on Tuesday.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, in an interview with FOX 13 News on Tuesday.

Liquor privatization would draw political battle lines. One of the most powerful opponents would be The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has said Utah liquor laws are fine the way they are. Still, Sen. Dabakis said he believes even conservatives would support the state getting out of the business of selling alcohol and letting the free market handle it.

The Libertas Institute, a Libertarian-leaning think tank based in Lehi, said it has also considered pushing for a ballot initiative on alcohol privatization. Josh Daniels, Libertas' policy director, said they would support putting the issue before voters.

"I think a ballot initiative to privatize liquor stores would draw many people who are opposed to alcohol merely for the free market reasons," he said. "However, I think it would be an uphill battle."

Libertas has been working with backers of a ballot initiative for medical marijuana. Daniels said they were worried that putting liquor privatization on the same ballot as medical cannabis could hurt both causes.

"If they were both on the ballot at the same time, you might see some people feeling like there's this dual vice on the ballot," he said.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, in an interview Tuesday with FOX 13's Ben Winslow.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, in an interview Tuesday with FOX 13's Ben Winslow.

Sen. Dabakis said it would cost millions to gather signatures and mount a campaign for liquor privatization, but he pointed to the success of a ballot initiative in Washington state. He was confident he could raise money for it to pass in conservative Utah.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who has been tasked by the Senate Majority Caucus with overseeing liquor legislation, first heard of ballot initiative talk from FOX 13. He questioned if it would really come to pass.

"This would be a difficult state -- probably the most difficult state -- to push that forward in," he said.

Sen. Stevenson said there are advantages to being a liquor control state. Utah rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars each year that goes toward school lunches for needy children, public safety and keep's the general fund robust.  He also pointed to social issues related to alcohol abuse.

"We have the lowest DUIs in the country. We have the lowest traffic-related alcohol deaths in the country and we have the lowest level of binge drinking in the country from our youth," Sen. Stevenson said. "We need to make sure we stay there."