SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A proposal to raise low alcohol limits for beer sold at Utah grocery and convenience stores easily got a first nod of approval from the state Senate on Monday, despite opposition from the influential Mormon church and a number of local brewers.
The vote comes as most other states shed the limits, spurring some large brewers to stop making lower-alcohol products for a diminished market.
Republican sponsor Sen. Jerry Stevenson said that’s bad news for many business owners, especially in rural areas where beer sales make up a large part of convenience-store revenues.
“I don’t believe we’re changing the paradigm here. People who are going to be irresponsible are going to do that anyway,” he said.
His bill would have to pass one more vote in the Senate before it can go to the House of Representatives.
The proposal would increase the alcohol limit from 3.2 percent to 4.8 percent by weight, the amount in most standard production-line beers.
It would take some sales away from state-owned liquor stores that sell higher-alcohol products, but Stevenson said the stores will fill the space with other products, limiting the dent in sales and programs that benefit, like school lunches.
Local brewers, though, are concerned that the proposal unfairly upends a business model designed with the 3.2 limits in mind.
Republican Sen. Todd Weiler said one of his constituents stands to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in labeling and packaging material that’s already been ordered. He asked why the law couldn’t be phased in more slowly to allow those adjustments.
Stevenson said the law is set to go into effect in October, leaving several months for businesses to adjust.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, meanwhile, has expressed concern that the new limits are too high. Close to 90 percent of lawmakers are members of that church.
Republican Sen. Lyle Hillyard echoed that on Monday, wondering whether the change could lead to wine in grocery stores.
“I think were inviting problems in the state, and I don’t care what other states do,” he said.
In the past, several states had similar low-alcohol laws and large breweries made weaker products to sell there. But the limits have been abandoned in recent in years by Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas, leaving a market of just two states: Utah and Minnesota.
That’s meant it doesn’t make as much economic sense for companies like Anheuser-Busch to continue making the weaker brews, and shelves have begun to lose variety in Utah. Convenience stores and chains like Wal-Mart have encouraged customers to urge lawmakers to make a change.
This story has been corrected to show the bill must pass one more Senate vote before going to the House of Representatives.