Hyrum Johnson

Hyrum Johnson

After years of inaction on any more sweeping changes to Idaho’s liquor licensing laws, the mayor of Driggs hopes a more limited bill could pass in 2020 that would let some restaurants in his town serve liquor with meals.

“My effort is toward comprehensive reform, and if I have to take a small bite at a time, that’s what I’ll do,” Hyrum Johnson said Monday.

Johnson is still working on the proposal’s language and said he isn’t sure if it would apply to all of Idaho’s resort cities, which are defined in Idaho code as a city of fewer than 10,000 people “that derives the major portion of its economic well-being from businesses catering to recreational needs and meeting needs of people traveling to that destination city for an extended period of time,” or just Driggs.

The proposal would create a special class of licenses that could be issued to some restaurants in the aforementioned towns — Johnson said it would include specifications on kitchen size or type, or other wording to limit it to higher-end sit-down restaurants — that would let them serve up to two drinks with a meal.

Idaho’s current liquor licensing law, which passed in 1947 and has seen only minor tweaks since then, limits liquor licenses based on population, leading to a demand for additional licenses in many places, including resort cities where tourists make up much of the clientele. This has also led to licenses sometimes selling for $100,000 or more on the secondary market. There have been several stalled attempts to change the law over the years. A bill in 2009 to allow new licenses for restaurants and hotels passed the Senate but died in the House. A similar proposal this year to overhaul the quota system and let cities issue licenses to sit-down or hotel restaurants never made it out of committee.

Speaking with Johnson at a Chamber of Commerce event in Idaho Falls last week, Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, said many current license holders oppose change since it would reduce the value of their licenses. He said some lawmakers also are against it either due to concerns about drunk driving or cultural concerns about drinking — both the state Constitution and the 1947 liquor licensing statute contain language encouraging temperance. Zollinger said Monday he wants to either sponsor Johnson’s bill or at least help it pass. He said it would help the economy in cities such as Driggs.

“I don’t think it’s really going to increase liquor usage among Idaho residents,” he said. “It’s mostly going to be tourist dollars traveling through.”

Zollinger said he thinks a piecemeal bill such as Johnson’s could have a better shot at passing than more comprehensive changes. He also hopes it could raise the chances of a bigger overhaul.

“I think this puts pressure on the Legislature to step up and get a statewide (bill) passed, and maybe this year,” he said.

Johnson said he doesn’t support more bar licenses, but he does want more restaurant ones. He said he expects about a half-dozen restaurants in Driggs would qualify for these limited licenses under his proposal. While Johnson said he would like to see a Driggs-only solution at least, he doesn’t view it as the final step.

“My ultimate goal is comprehensive reform, or getting as close to that as we can,” he said.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.

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