State Politics

Idaho legislators expect controversy over liquor changes that would empower cities, counties

A proposal to change Idaho’s archaic liquor license laws cleared its first hurdle Wednesday.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to hold a hearing on legislation that would allow counties and cities to issue liquor licenses to restaurants and hotels.

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, told the committee his proposal would move away “from the quota system under which we currently operate, that has created some rather interesting dynamics throughout our state, to a system that is local and based on restaurants and hotels rather than the current system, which is get on a list and if you are on the list long enough you get what turns out to be a very valuable transferable license.”

Currently the state is responsible for issuing all liquor licenses under a population quota system in which each city gets one license per 1,500 residents. License demand is outpacing supply, creating a secondary market where some people privately buy and sell liquor licenses, some of which fetch six figures.

Rice’s proposal puts an end to state-issued quota licenses, allows cities and counties to issue — or choose not to issue — liquor licenses, provides added incentives to existing state-issued liquor license holders, improves alcohol server training to curb violations and eliminate the secondary market of trafficking state liquor licenses.

“I know this is going to be a highly contested issue,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, told the committee. “I think it is something we do need to take a look at as we try to modernize and adjust to what is going on in our state. I commend Sen. Rice for having the courage and the time to go back in look at these laws, and I look forward to hearing the public testimony.”

The committee only agreed to print the bill and hold a hearing on its merits. Following the hearing, the committee will vote on whether to send the bill to the Senate floor for a full hearing. If it passes the Senate, then it goes through the same process in the House.

“This is not the day to settle whether it is right or wrong. This is the day to determine whether or not this is an appropriate conversation to have,” said Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley. “I appreciate there are people who are opposed to this. I appreciate this is a very complicated matter. I do agree it is appropriate to print the [bill] and move forward with that debate.”

Committee chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, added the system the state uses now harms small business owners and their ability to get a license.

“This is an issue that has been worked on for at least 10 years — worked back and forth as we try to find a way to update and modernize our liquor system in Idaho so that small businesses, small restaurants would have an opportunity to have a liquor license,” she said.

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Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named Idaho Press Club reporter of the year in 2017 and 2008. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.