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News | Flip-flop: What made Waddoups change his mind on dumping the private club law?

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Before Sen. Mike Waddoups was against overhauling Utah’s private club law, he was for it. At least that’s how it sounds in tape recordings of a 2006 legislative committee hearing when the West Jordan Republican was carrying a bill to ban smoking in bars. n

After he argued for the smoking ban, Waddoups took questions from the Health and Human Services Committee. Then-Rep. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake City, asked if the state was trying to have it both ways: “It’s kind of a mixed message,” she said. “On one hand we designate private clubs and mandate that people buy memberships. And yet we’re banning smoking” by regulating clubs as public places.

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Waddoups responded that the private-club law wasn’t up for debate. But then he added: “I personally believe that the private club issue in Utah is outdated. … I think that if we want to have a place for people to drink, we should let them have a place to drink.”

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That brought applause from private club owner Dave Morris, sitting in the back of the room. The committee chairman admonished the crowd to keep quiet, then turned to Waddoups and remarked that, from the crowd reaction, it looked like he’d have support for a private-club reform bill in the next session.

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Waddoups replied that might be in the cards. “We’ve had a lot of suggestions for spin-offs to this bill, and I’m guessing this would be another one of these.”

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Fast forward three years, and a bill to overhaul Utah's private-club law is before the Legislature. But Waddoups, now Utah Senate president, is its main critic. Morris, inside his Piper Down club, reflects on his spontaneous burst of applause back in 2006: “I couldn’t help myself, I was so excited.”

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He and other local bar owners felt then that the smoking ban, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2009, was the beginning of the end for Utah’s private clubs.

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“My whole fight [against the club smoking ban] was, ‘Just make me public,’” Morris says. “If you want to treat me public, make me public. I’m fine getting rid of smoking. Let us be like 49 other states.”

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Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is leading the charge to get rid of private clubs—arguing that “normalizing” Utah bars will improve tourism. He’s backed by tourism promotion groups, ski resorts and restaurants. Missives from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make it appear church leaders are open to the idea.

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Waddoups did not respond to a request for an interview. But, in public statements, he has objected to the governor’s private-club initiative. He says getting rid of private clubs will increase underage drinking and drunken driving. Additionally, he has said that private-club membership lists are needed as a way to track clubs responsible for overserving. That new 2009 line from Waddoups happens to precisely mirror objections raised by Utah’s Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in June 2008, when the Department of Alcoholic Beverage board considered a club overhaul.

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MADD, rather than the LDS Church, may turn out to be Huntsman’s most formidable opponent in getting new club rules through the Legislature this year. In written statements prepared for City Weekly, Jaynie Brown of Utah’s MADD chapter writes the chapter is “adamantly opposed” to “changing private clubs into open bars,” calling the issue “one of the most serious public-safety issues we have ever faced.”

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Private club rules reduce access to alcohol by creating barriers to entering bars, Brown writes. To bolster the argument, MADD’s Utah chapter is circulating studies that say simply making drinking more socially acceptable increases drinking problems. One study, from the National Highway Safety Administration, links the ease of getting a drink generally with increases in underage drinking and DUIs. Another study, from the National Academies of Science, says creating “more positive attitudes about drinking” can have an “enabling effect” on minors.

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“Open bars are the major source of DUIs in this country,” writes Brown, noting that getting rid of private clubs will ease drinkers’ movement from bar to bar, making it difficult for bartenders to track consumption. If club memberships go away, she writes, Utah’s private clubs will lose significant membership fee revenue and have to make it up by, “recruiting more people off the street into their clubs.”

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Those supporting the effort to do away with private clubs argue memberships do nothing to stem problem drinking. “We are very opposed to underage drinking and overconsumption,” says Danny Richardson, executive director of the Utah Tourism Industry Coalition. “The private-club membership accomplishes none of those things.” The only thing he is sure private clubs accomplish is making would-be tourists choose to ski in Colorado.

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Club owner Morris argues private club rules actually exacerbate the problems about which MADD is concerned. Inputting membership information into computers, or watching to make sure “guests” aren’t left behind when a “member” leaves, “distracts my staff and law enforcement from true public-safety concerns,” he says.

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“My job is to make sure that intoxicated people don’t get into my bar, that minors don’t get in my bar and that someone who may have become intoxicated doesn’t leave my bar and get in a car. That’s the most important thing that my door guy does. Let him focus on public safety concerns, not the silly dotting Is and crossing Ts.”

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Morris has his own statistics, including sales data from the DABC showing just 5 percent of liquor purchased in Utah is consumed in a private club. He feels bars are being “scapegoated for every problem” associated with alcohol.  tttt

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