The recent move by Washington voters to end state control of liquor sales, combined with ongoing corruption scandals within the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, is causing Utah lawmakers to renew privatization discussions. Support appears to be growing to limit the state’s involvement in liquor sales at least to some degree.
Utah is among the minority of states that control wholesale and retail liquor sales. Several Utah state legislators have expressed an interest in privatizing the retail business. Some have also expressed interest in privatizing wholesale sales. Governor Herbert has expressed interest in retail change but appears reluctant to remove control of the wholesale system. Wholesale privatization appears less likely than retail privatization, because of a perception that state control over distribution and pricing results in fewer alcohol-related problems.
Utah currently allows some private retail alcohol sales through “package agencies.” Package agencies are located in resorts and rural areas and offer a modest selection of products. Similar to liquor licenses, package agency contracts are granted based on population with one package agency allowed per 18,000 people. Expanding the package agency system, for instance to allow grocery stores to operate liquor outlets, could act as a bridge to full privatization.
Any privatization reforms will have to clear several hurdles, including compensating for the substantial profit the state realizes from liquor sales.