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The Return of Happy Hour in Illinois Isn't Making Everyone Happy

WIll the measure increase binge drinking and DUIs in the state?

The state's waiting for Gov. Bruce Rauner to approve happy hour.
The state's waiting for Gov. Bruce Rauner to approve happy hour.
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Most expect Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign the bill that would once more allow Illinois restaurants and bars to offer happy hour specials and similar drink discounts. The Illinois Restaurant Association says it will help culinary tourism in the state, allowing better competition against rivals in California and Florida that don't abide by such restrictions. However, not everyone is, well, happy.

Piece Pizza owner Bill Jacobs says it will entice younger customers more prone to poor decisions to binge drink. He'd prefer if the bill directly tied in food specials to the drink specials and worries about an increase in DUI-related fatalities. Jacobs spoke about a Facebook exchange where a friend described the death of a friend who died in 1987 near suburban Orland Park. She was struck by a drunk driver leaving happy hour. Lawmakers banned happy hour two years later: "I am a progressive thinker, I'm a progressive operator, but there's nothing progressive about this whatsoever," Jacobs said.

Many servers also worry about dealing with an increase in drunken customers as a result of the bill. The bill requires all servers to undergo alcohol serving training, which amounts to an online seminar where they learn how to spot customers who are over served and other tips. States including Indiana and Michigan already have the requirement. However, the Centers for Disease Control isn't sold on training. The CDC in 2010 reported there isn't enough evidence to prove that the training is effective to curb binge drinking.

The CDC does recommend limiting the daily hours of alcohol sales. That keeps in the spirit of the Illinois bill, which restricts when owners can offer drink discounts.

"The Illinois Restaurant Association believed in finding a balanced approach to keep Chicago competing with San Francisco, competing against Miami," said association President Sam Toia, who noted that the bill doesn't allow all discounts. Two for 1 drink specials are still outlawed, for example.

Toia said lobbyists presented the bill as a way to modernize the 1989 law, as it's unfair to compare the restaurant world of 26 years ago to the present. Toia mentioned fine-dining restaurants like Grace and Alinea, which offer tasting menus with paired beverages. Restaurants like that didn't exist in 1989, and the bill better defines meal packages, allowing the inclusion of drinks in that cost. He also touted an estimated $1.8 billion in annual state sales taxes from restaurants. That amount will likely increase if Rauner signs the bill into law.

Despite the increase in sales tax drink specials, there are other costs associated with binge drinking. The CDC estimated that excessive drinking produced "losses in workplace productivity, health care expenses, and other costs due to a combination of criminal justice expenses, motor vehicle crash costs, and property damage" that totaled about $9.3 billion in Illinois. That's above the national median of $2.9 billion per state.

While Jacobs acknowledges that no one is obliged to have happy hour specials, he worries about irresponsible bar and restaurant owners who see the discounts as a windfall: "Let's generate sales taxes for the right reasons," he said.

Toia isn't sure when Rauner will take action. The governor has 60 days until he receives the bill to make a choice. He hasn't received the bill yet, but he'll receive it within 30 days of when the Senate approved the measure, which they did on May 31.

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