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Allowing Sunday liquor sales is probably going to fail again at the state Legislature. Here’s why

REUTERS/John Sommers II
Year after year lawmakers introduce and then kill any prospects of repealing the state’s so-called blue law.

There are two words no lawmaker wants to hear while trying to pass a bill into law:

“Informational only.”

But that’s where supporters of a push to lift Minnesota’s 80-year-old ban on Sunday liquor sales find themselves. On Wednesday, two proposals to address the prohibition will get their first — and possibly only — hearing this year, in the House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee, and the “informational” tag on the gathering means no votes will be taken. One proposal seeks to lift the Sunday ban altogether, while another would allow local governments to choose whether liquor stores could sell booze on Sundays.

In other words, it’s probably the beginning of the end — once again — for Sunday booze sales in Minnesota, a recurring failure that can be perplexing to the 99 percent of Minnesotans who don’t spend their time at the statehouse. Politically, the issue unites residents right and left, urban and rural, with polling consistently showing overwhelming support for lifting the ban.

And yet, year after year lawmakers introduce and then kill any prospects of repealing the state’s so-called blue law. To explain why that happens, we’ve tried to answer a few of the most frequently asked questions around the issue — why one of the most publicly popular ideas routinely gets nowhere in the Minnesota Legislature:

Polls have shown most Minnesotans support Sunday liquor sales. Who opposes it?
By now, most Minnesotans have at least casually heard mention of the powerful liquor lobby at the Minnesota Capitol, even if they don’t know exactly who that is. It turns out that the same handful of groups have been opposing the expansion of liquor sales to Sundays for years — and still oppose it today. Leading the charge is the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA), which is made up of independent liquor stores around the state. They argue Sunday liquor sales bill won’t increase business but will simply spread profits over seven days instead of six. The group’s power comes from the size, breadth and political savvy of its membership: small business owners in just about every legislative district in the state — who make campaign contributions to legislators.

And the MLBA is hardly alone in its efforts to maintain the status quo. The Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association, representing most of the state’s city-owned liquor stores, the Minnesota Beer Wholesalers Association, which opposes wine sold in grocery stores, and the Teamsters Joint Council 32 are also among the ranks of those opposed to Sunday liquor sales. The teamsters recently changed their position on the sale of growlers (64 ounce jugs of beer sold at craft breweries), but they are still “strongly opposed to full Sunday alcohol sales,” according to a statement. The union’s biggest concern: that any change in the law would open up their labor contracts with liquor establishments, a possibility that has kept many powerful Democrats from supporting Sunday sales. 

The key argument for opponents of Sunday sales boils down to a David vs. Goliath argument: small independent business vs. giant chain stores. “This current system has been in place in Minnesota for 70 years,” said Leslie Rosedahl, who represents groups in the liquor lobby. “Small businesses have made their decisions around this system. It would be massively changing an industry and changing the rules on these folks. The big guys can handle the extra cost of being open on Sundays, but the small guys cannot.”

OK, now we know who’s against it. So who’s fighting  for Sunday sales at the Capitol?
Each year, the issue is championed by individual legislators, often those who live in communities that border Wisconsin, which does allow Sunday liquor sales. (Minnesota, in fact, is one of only 12 states — along with the likes of Mississippi, Alabama and Utah — that still ban liquor sales on Sundays.) This year, Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, and Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, led the charge to repeal the ban at the start of session.

“This is one of those issues that really isn’t partisan, it tends to have a really local concern,” said DFL Sen. Susan Kent, who supports Sunday sales. “Because my district is Woodbury and we are so close to Wisconsin, I hear it strongly from local business owners and constituents. I know colleagues of mine in different parts of the state have a very different experience and a different reaction in their communities.”

For many years, there was no organized lobbying effort at the Capitol to show support for the Sunday sales when it came up for discussion. That’s slowly changing, thanks in no small measure to the craft beer boom in Minnesota. The Minnesota Beer Activists and a group calling itself the MN Consumers First Alliance have tried to make the issue more public, showing up with groups of supporters at hearings to testify in favor of Sunday sales and pushing online ad campaigns. In mid-March, the beer activists organized a Sunday booze run to Wisconsin, starting at the state Capitol, to protest the current law.

Why hasn’t there been a vote on the issue yet?
The Sunday liquor debate is a good lesson in how a bill becomes a law — or, more accurately, how it doesn’t. Both authors of the Sunday liquor sales bills have acknowledged that they don’t have enough support among the handful of members on the key House and Senate commerce committees. That’s partially the reason for the informational-only hearing in the House Wednesday; backers know that Sunday sales would fail if it were put up to a vote right now. The situation is even more dismal for Sunday sales in the Senate, where Senate Commerce Chairman James Metzen is opposed to the measure — and no hearing has been scheduled at all.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Hoppe said Sunday liquor sales wasn’t include in a broader “omnibus” liquor bill because it was too controversial, he said. The next option for supporters is to move the proposal as an amendment to the larger liquor bill on the House floor. If an amendment is successful in the House, supporters in the Senate can try to open up the debate in the upper chamber.

That sounds kinda familiar. Haven’t lawmakers tried that strategy in the past?
Yes, Sunday sales floor amendments are common in the House, but the effort fails every time. In 2013, the last time the amendment came up on the floor, it went down on a 106-21 vote. In the Senate, an effort to pass Sunday liquor sales was defeated on the floor last year, though growler sales did pass via a floor amendment. At the time, however, the Teamsters still opposed growler sales, which led Senate Democrats to table the discussion until the provision could be taken back out. Reinert has protested the floor-amendment strategy in the past, saying the last-minute efforts are rarely successful.

But some of the most powerful people in the state support Sunday sales, right?
Yes, namely Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Daudt’s support in particular gave advocates hope at the start of the session that something could change this year. But support and advocacy are two very different things at the Capitol, and Daudt hasn’t put any effort into trying to find the votes in his caucus to pass the bill. Same goes for Dayton. Though he says he would sign a Sunday liquor sales bill if it landed on his desk, Dayton also recently said it’s not high on his priority list. “We have bigger things to deal with here,” he said, ticking off priorities like transportation, education and passing a $40 billion budget this year.

What’s also important: Senate DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk opposes the measure, which has made it hard for the bill to move in his chamber. Even some of Sunday liquor sales’ biggest supporters, like Reinert, are getting discouraged by the debate. The second-term senator recently said he’d rather not comment on the issue, and simply noted that the bill is not scheduled for a hearing in the Senate this year.

Has there been any progress at all?
By all accounts, yes. The Sunday liquor sales debate has come a long way in the last decade. Most expect there to be more votes in favor of the amendment on the House floor than ever before, and there’s been some movement on smaller issues. The omnibus liquor bills now includes allowing Sunday growler sales at Minnesota taprooms, after the Teamsters lifted their opposition. The proposal will also let bars and restaurants start serving alcohol at 8 a.m. on Sunday, instead of waiting until 10 a.m. under current law.

“The world is changing, it’s not us, it’s people who like to drink beer and better beer and better wine in different places; everything is changing,” said Hoppe, the House commerce chairman. “We kind of move the ball a little bit forward every year. I’ve been saying for three or four years that it’s coming, and I’ve been wrong every year. But if it’s not this year, it’s coming next year.”

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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by David Hanegraaf on 04/08/2015 - 11:19 am.

    Surprised? No.

    No surprise. Those government representatives you elect don’t represent the people, but rather whoever has and will give the big bucks. They are all for sale.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/08/2015 - 11:24 am.

    What?

    “The proposal will also let bars and restaurants start serving alcohol at 8 a.m. on Sunday, instead of waiting until 10 a.m. under current law.” Good grief. Somebody’s got a problem.

    This culture has waay too much focus on alcoholic beverages, in my opinion. Sober up, people.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 04/08/2015 - 12:29 pm.

      Just getting the govt

      Out of restricting any businesses from opening on Sunday. Libertarians in the legislature should be ashamed.

    • Submitted by Curt Carlson on 04/08/2015 - 01:05 pm.

      Interesting, but not surprising

      So the laissez-faireist in the crowd is in favor of keeping government restrictions on trade – when it comes to “moral” issues like demon rum?

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/08/2015 - 02:01 pm.

        Did I mention the government?

        My comments were directed at the individuals who need a drink at 8 a.m., regardless of the day of the week. They need help. And no, I don’t mean government help.

        • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/08/2015 - 02:36 pm.

          Help

          Not everyone works a 9 to 5 job. For some people, 8 am is the end of the workday.

          I like to have a beer when I watch English soccer, which in U.S. Central time, is shown at 8 am Sunday morning (among other times). That might be the only beer I have all week.

        • Submitted by Reilly Liebhard on 04/08/2015 - 02:52 pm.

          “Need”

          In a free society, is it really the individual’s burden to justify why s/he “needs” to be able to engage in a certain activity? Shouldn’t the burden to show need fall upon the person who wishes to stop that activity? And if so, what interest would one advance for the (continued) prevention of individuals from drinking on Sunday at times when they would be permitted to drink on a Saturday?

        • Submitted by jason myron on 04/08/2015 - 03:26 pm.

          You make a lot of assumptions, Dennis.

          I’m from Milwaukee and many taverns were full at 8 AM, catering to the workers who just finished with 3rd shift. Not everyone chooses to live their lives as you want them to…you remember the “free men” screed that you’re always espousing here?

        • Submitted by Mark Snyder on 04/08/2015 - 03:27 pm.

          Brunch

          Not allowing alcohol sales before 10 a.m. puts an unnecessary restriction on restaurants that serve brunch on weekends. If I want a mimosa or a Bloody Mary with my brunch and the restaurant I’m patronizing wants to sell me one, why is it any business of yours, or government’s, Mr. Tester?

          • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/08/2015 - 06:20 pm.

            mmkay

            Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.

            • Submitted by Pat Berg on 04/09/2015 - 07:59 am.

              Hey, Libertarian

              You still haven’t answered the question. As a Libertarian, why do you think it’s the government’s business telling anyone what day of the week they can sell liquor or how early in the day?

              Or do you support government intervention only as long as it’s in line with your own personal moral code?

            • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/09/2015 - 08:14 am.

              Mon – Sat?

              But we should allow these “problem drinkers” to a a drink at 8AM the rest of the week?

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 04/09/2015 - 08:14 am.

          The article mentioned the government

          In fact, that’s the basic premise of the article – how the government is involved in whether or not liquor may be sold on Sundays in the state of Minnesota.

          This is an article about government intervention. If you want to comment on incipient alcoholism, I’m sure you can find an article dealing with that elsewhere on MinnPost.

          But comments here – to be relevant to the content of the article content – do, indeed, need to “mention the government” in some way.

          So, Libertarian – are you in favor of keeping government restrictions on trade – when it comes to “moral” issues such as what day or what time of day a business owner may sell alcohol?

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/08/2015 - 07:36 pm.

      Can’t have it both ways!

      Come on DT, own up, you got caught with your proverbial libertarian pants down, you are either supporting government regulation of booze, or accusing those that prefer a morning waker upper, as problem Americans, that we should aid in their cure, by denying them a Sunday morning Tequila Sunrise to go with their eggs Benedict at a local cafe!

  3. Submitted by David Frenkel on 04/08/2015 - 11:36 am.

    civics lesson

    This is a good civics lesson that lobbying does work and is worth the money all organizations pay to get their way in the legislative process. This is pretty small potatoes but the at the federal level where the big money is spent on lobbying there is the same effect on issues that are important.

  4. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 04/08/2015 - 11:44 am.

    Which day is the seventh?

    While I would prefer no restriction on the number of days any business can be open, I most object to the designation of Sunday. An obvious alternative would be to require that liquor establishments must close one day each week, but not specify the day. Then all would have six days of employee expenses, but the day off would not have to conform to traditional Christian practices, an implied first amendment violating governmental imposition. And border towns can keep their stores open on weekends and force the inconvenience of a liquor run driving trip on a day more likely to be a workday, saving Minnesota revenue.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/08/2015 - 12:41 pm.

    The Puritans didn’t die…

    …they just moved to Minnesota. A Sunday ban on liquor sales if of no importance to a teetotaler like me, but it’s plain stupid as public policy for the rest of the state.

    Some local, small-business liquor stores will lose out, and others will not. I believe this is referred to in textbooks as “capitalism,” or “the market.” Letting grocery stores sell booze is another way to test “the market.” It may have changed in Missouri since I last lived there (mid-1990s), but when I left, Sunday sales were permitted, and both independent and grocery store sales were also permitted. There were no state or city-owned liquor stores of which I was aware.

    Yet, despite all those things that various lobbyists toss at Minnesota’s legislators, there were still small, independent liquor stores in Missouri, and all the major grocery store chains in the state sold everything from beer to wine to hard liquor. People were still making a living in the industry, and this was long before the days of craft beers.

    *Allowing* businesses (I would specifically include auto dealerships, as well) to be open is not the same thing as *requiring* them to be open. As it stands, Michael Friedman has a First Amendment point that often is left out of the discussion, and David Hanegraaf makes an equally good point about whether the current ban represents democracy or special-interest corruption in practice.

  6. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 04/08/2015 - 01:17 pm.

    Finger in the wind

    So now Joe Hoppe is talking like he supports Sunday sales? He’s consistently voted against it in the past.

  7. Submitted by Chelle Blakely on 04/08/2015 - 02:44 pm.

    Blue Laws for Car Sales?

    Although I don’t buy enough liquor to care about Sunday sales, I do buy cars now and then. It would be nice to productively use the weekend to test drive and comparison shop. It seems absolutely insane that car dealerships have a blue law keeping them closed on Sunday. Where is the demon rum in this one? Just an anachronistic law that makes no sense in 2015. (Are we seriously supposed to feel sorry for poor, overworked car dealers – compared to poor, overworked appliance sales people, real estate agents, etc?)

    • Submitted by Tina Liebling on 04/12/2015 - 05:01 pm.

      Sunday car sales

      Thanks for mentioning this. Did you know that selling cars on Sunday is a criminal offense? First offense is a misdemeanor, second offense is a gross misdemeanor with up to a year in jail.
      House File 347 would remove the prohibition on Sunday liquor AND car sales.
      I tried to get other legislators interested but even the ones most committed to removing the Sunday liquor prohibition did not want to take on the car dealerships. And, indeed, the car dealers and their employees flooded my office with calls and emails accusing me of wanting to destroy their way of life.
      You may be interested in this FTC blog post that discusses the issue:
      https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/competition-matters/2014/03/good-deal

  8. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 04/08/2015 - 04:26 pm.

    Munis weren’t mentioned

    One of the biggest opponents to Sunday liquor sales are city-owned liquor stores. They see this as an extra expense. And, in many respects, they have more power than any collection of small businesses. Every state rep wants the local mayors to endorse him or her and those mayors aren’t going to if they cost the city money.

    Personally, I’ve stopped shopping at munis. I live in Fridley and we have two of them. I haven’t been in either in three years. I don’t think cities ought to be in the liquor business.

    Maybe I should start buying, in legal quantities, liquor elsewhere. I can mail order wine. I don’t drink that much beer or hard liquor that it couldn’t be covered by the one liter of spirits and a case of beer.

  9. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 04/08/2015 - 06:59 pm.

    The reason is obvious

    The majority of Minnesotans want it. All the reactions against ignore this simple fact.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/08/2015 - 08:06 pm.

      Definitely

      I mean if businesses and unions don’t want it, how would we ever get it passed?

      It ties up both halves of the politicians…

  10. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/09/2015 - 09:43 am.

    Total Wine

    Do you know who supports Sunday sales? Total Wine, the new (to Minnesota) superstore that is already hurting small liquor stores. That is where I am taking my business from now on.

  11. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 04/09/2015 - 12:30 pm.

    Teapot tempest

    In California, where I lived for 40 years, wine and liquor are sold at almost all supermarkets, and can be purchased any day of the week, from 6AM to 2AM, along with other food and beverages. It still seems so strange to be living in a place where liquor cannot be sold on Sunday or after 10 PM. What does this restriction have to do with anything in the real world?

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 04/09/2015 - 07:13 pm.

      Well . . . .

      It certainly does a good job continuing to make us look provincial to many in other areas of the country.

  12. Submitted by Robert McManus on 04/12/2015 - 11:28 am.

    What is curious to me is why liquor sales are banned on Sunday. Why not Friday, which is the Muslim holy day, or Saturday which is the Jewish holy day? I think the law could be struck down as unconstitutionally legislating other’s religion onto all of us.

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