In the big picture of important issues, Sunday sales of liquor probably doesn’t rank up there with improved transit, funding for education, tax rates, employment opportunity and minimum wage increases.
Yet, efforts to repeal the state’s blue laws always draw a media crowd because this is one of those issues that affects every Minnesotan who might want to buy a bottle of wine on Sunday.
And so it was Thursday that Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, and Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, got a full house of reporters and television cameras when they unveiled the newest plan to repeal the state’s liquor sales ban.
Unlike previous efforts, the two legislators offered a plan that gives legislators seven approaches to ending the perplexing ban.
“We’re taking a different approach,’’ said Reinert. “We’re offering everything from full repeal to local options.’’
Range of options
At least one of the approaches, banning sales on Saturday instead of Sunday, is Reinert’s tongue-in-cheek way of point out to how bizarre he thinks the Sunday ban is.
Besides the Saturday ban, Reinert/Loon are offering legislators the following menu:
- Full repeal of the sales restrictions;
- A bill that repeals the ban but gives municipalities the option of having restrictions;
- A bill that would allow municipalities to choose to allow sales on Sundays;
- Allowing craft breweries to sell “growlers” on Sundays;
- Allowing tap rooms to sell alcohol on Sundays;
- A constitutional amendment that would allow the voters to decision whether the blue law should be lifted.
(By the way, the term “growler” — like so much in our culture — was new to me. Turns out a growler is a glass or ceramic jug used to transport beer. You get the growler filled at your neighborhood craft brewer, lug it home and return for refills as needed.)
Both Loon and Reinert admit that allowing growler sales and sales at tap rooms would be “baby steps.’‘
But the reality is that even baby steps will be difficult to accomplish. Liquor laws are risky. You never know what groups might be offended by a change. Typically, legislators like to let sleeping dogs lie.
Yet, Reinert keeps pointing out that it is the 21st century and that on other issues, legislators have acknowledged that times have changed.
“We’re the state that legalized gay marriage, we’re a state where a committee has passed a bill that legalized medicinal marijuana, but we can’t buy a bottle of wine on Sunday,’’ said Reinert.
As it is, Minnesota is in company with 11 other states, many in the Bible Belt, that prohibit Sunday sales: Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas, Indiana, Montana and Utah.
This does not seem like typical Minnesota company. But there’s a simple reason Minnesota is hanging out with this crowd of states.
Lobbyists powerful on issue
“A classic case of lobbying,’’ Reinert said.
The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association works the issue hard, saying that lifting the ban would not increase sales, but merely be an economic burden to the small liquor stores and municipal liquor establishments that dot the Minnesota landscape. They’d be forced to stay open, paying labor costs while not increasing sales.
Those small establishments already are having a hard time fighting the big-box liquor stores.
More than $1 million has been spent on lobbyists since this issue revved up in the 21st century.
The industry, however, isn’t united on this issue. For example, a national organization called the Distilled Spirits Council praised the Reinert-Loon effort. In a statement, the organization said that Minnesota “should become the 17th state since 2002 to pass Sunday sales legislation.’’
But what’s needed, Reinert said, is for “regular old folks’’ to connect with their legislators.
Yes, there are polls that show that more than 60 percent of the people in Minnesota want to repeal the ban. Yet, simply answering a pollster’s question is not enough.
“If you want to have it, you have to get involved,’’ Reinert said.
He says he has received more than 3,000 emails, praising his efforts to lift the ban.
But apparently many legislators haven’t felt so much as a nudge.
“There is not a bleep on my radar screen that says we need to do it,’’ said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who will vote against any effort to lift the ban.
Free-market politicians split on issue
The issue divides let-the-market decide politicians.
Loon, for example, uses the free-market argument to explain her interest in pushing for repeal.
Since joing the Legislature in 2009, Loon said, she’s always looked for ways “to create more economic freedom in Minnesota. … Some liquor store owners may not want to be open on Sunday. I’m not here to say they have to be.’’
Meantime, Limmer, who typically might argue for marketplace freedom, isn’t buying the “liberty argument.’’
“If you’re using that argument, then, maybe those businesses should be open 24-7 and we should allow them to be open across the street from playgrounds. There are reasons for having restricted hours and regulations,’’ Limmer said.
Most of all, Limmer said, legislators should “listen to the businesses’‘ before making changes.
“My prediction is that if we allowed Sunday sales, a lot of liquor store owners would go under,’’ he said. “Those big warehouse stores would move in, and we’d lose a slice of Minnesota.’’
But Reinert counters that Minnesota has changed in profound ways in the eight decades since the end of prohibition.
In most households, both spouses are working, and in many cases heads of households are working more than one job. That means, he said, that “the vast majority of shopping is done on the weekends.’’ He added that Sunday has become a bigger day to go to the market than Saturday.
Both Reinert and Loon talk about “momentum.’’ But in the next breath, they talk about “reality.’’
“You have to be realistic,’’ said Loon. “This may have to be a multi-step process.’’