The 2015 legislative session was mostly a victorious one for beer and liquor advocates, especially those who’ve been chipping away at Minnesota’s decades-old restrictions on Sunday liquor sales.
Last year, legislators changed laws to make way for craft breweries and brewpubs to sell 64-ounce jugs of beer — better known as growlers — on Sundays. They also made it legal for bars and restaurants in Minnesota to serve mimosas and Bloody Marys — or any other alcoholic drink — starting at 8 a.m. on Sunday, two hours earlier than law previously allowed. Even a proposal to lift Minnesota’s ban on allowing liquor stores to sell alcohol on Sundays got more votes in the House and Senate than ever before, though it ultimately failed.
The 2016 session could be a different story.
Once again, Sunday liquor-store sales supporters will push to lift the ban, and individual legislators are hoping to make a few smaller tweaks. But people on both sides of the debate are expecting there to be far less conversation this session about altering the state’s regulations governing alcohol. The chairs of the commerce committees in both the House and Senate are still debating whether there will even be an overall liquor bill crafted this year, legislators say.
“This is a very short session with a few really big things we need to be focusing on,” said Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, a Sunday liquor sales supporter who will carry legislation this year to lift the ban. “But we’ve seen so much public support. Legislators are really hearing it in their communities loud and clear, so when it’s the right time, we want to be ready.”
Opposition remains strong
Every year, there’s usually a big, overarching liquor bill — the so-called omnibus liquor bill — crafted by lawmakers in St. Paul to accommodate things like local liquor licenses. But the 2016 session poses some unique challenges to getting anything done this year. Due to the renovation of the Capitol, lawmakers won’t convene until the unusually late start date of March 8, and they must finish everything up and adjourn by mid-May.
In that short window, tax cuts, capital projects and transportation spending are expected to take up most the lawmakers’ time and attention. What’s more, the makeup of the House and Senate hasn’t changed much since they rejected the idea last year; nor has the opposition from powerful lobbying organizations.
Leaders of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA), which represents dozens of small independent liquor stores around the state, are anticipating a status quo session. They aren’t pushing any new laws, and they expect the state’s current liquor laws to stay in place. “We are not aware of any alcohol-related issue that requires immediate action during this year’s legislative session,” said MLBA Executive Director Tony Chesak.
The smaller liquor stores the MLBA represents oppose Sunday sales because they say it will simply spread the same revenues over a seventh day of operation while costing more for staffing.
The Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association, which represents city and local government operated liquor stores, also opposes Sunday sales, arguing that it could decrease revenues at municipal stores and increase the local tax burden. There’s also opposition from the Teamsters union, which represent workers in warehousing, distribution and delivery of liquor.
Legislators from both parties have opposed Sunday liquor store sales over the years for a variety of reasons, from religious beliefs to concerns over the health and societal costs of drinking. Some lawmakers argue they have bigger fish to fry, so they simply choose to side with their local private and municipal liquor stores.
‘Just a matter of time’
But attitudes, and votes, have been shifting. In 2013, the House voted down a Sunday sales amendment to an overall liquor bill by a vote of 21-106. The following year, the Senate rejected a similar motion 22-42. In 2015, the Senate vote was closer, with a Sunday sales amendment going down 28-35. And in the House last year, a bill to allow local governments to decide whether to allow Sunday liquor sales went down on a 57-75 vote.
Sunday-sales advocates have been paying close attention to those numbers: The 2015 amendment needed just six votes to flip the result in the Senate, and the House bill needed 11 more votes to change the outcome.
The shift is not at all accidental: When Minnesotans are polled about whether they want Sunday liquor sales, it’s a popular idea, and lobbying efforts have intensified on the consumer side of the debate in the last few sessions — legislators are no longer only hearing from liquor store owners.
Andrew Schmitt, who heads the Minnesota Beer Activists, has been working to get that support translated into a pro-Sunday-sales push in St. Paul. After the 2015 votes failed on the floor, Schmitt said legislators who voted “No” were flooded with calls urging them to change their minds. “They had no idea how much feedback they were going to get,” Schmitt said. “I think that resonated with some of them.”
The tide is shifting, Schmitt said, which is what he always hears from legislators. “You talk to everybody, and they know [Sunday liquor-store sales is] an eventuality, it’s just a matter of how much time is spent on it,” Schmitt said. “It’s kind of frustrating to hear, ‘Well it’s an eventuality.’ Well then why don’t we just do it?”
‘Not a partisan issue’
Kent is working on a bill that would give each local government the option to decide if liquor stores can open up on Sundays. She lives in Woodbury, just a short drive from Hudson, Wisconsin, where Sunday sales are allowed, and a lot of people make the drive on Sundays when they can’t get beer here, she said. Minnesota is one of 12 states that do not allow sale of liquor on Sundays, and all of its bordering states have the option. In the House, Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, will offer up a bill similar to Kent’s. “This is not a partisan issue,” Kent said. “It’s so driven by local concerns.”
Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore, supports Sunday liquor sales and loosening other restrictions on craft breweries this session. No surprise, since Anderson owns Gull Dam Brewing in Nisswa and is frustrated by what he says are intense regulations on brewers.
He has introduced bills to allow breweries to sell wine to their less beer-inclined customers, and another to let breweries and distilleries sell take-home beer in bottles smaller than the strict 64-ounce requirement currently in law for growlers. (Breweries and distilleries can also sell 750 milliliter bottles.)
“In Minnesota why are we always so doggone far behind everybody?” said Anderson, who is retiring after this term. “I’m a free market guy. My free market capitalistic ideas supersede any anti-Sunday liquor sales arguments. Why are some government officials sitting in St. Paul saying what days they can or can’t be open in a free market economy?”
Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would sign a bill allowing Sunday liquor sales if it landed on his desk, but he’s not going to advocate for it. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt also supports Sunday liquor sales, but that didn’t translate into movement on the issue last session. DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk opposes the move.
Matt Brillhart lives in Minneapolis and has been closely following the issue for the last two sessions. A Democrat and Sunday liquor sales advocate, he’s frustrated that it seems like it’s legislators from his party who mostly vote no. He also thinks current lobbying efforts have focused too much on web videos, tweets and other social media campaigns, and not enough on politics at the local level.
“Once I saw the 2015 [Sunday liquor sales] vote, I kind of conceded 2016,” he said.
For his part, he plans to bring the issue up in the local party caucus and convention process this spring, and he’s been closely monitoring the retirements of current legislators. One of the biggest champions of Sunday liquor-store sales, Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, is retiring after this year. But overall, Brillhart said legislators who have served only one or two terms tend to support Sunday liquor sales, while legislators who have been around much longer are opposed.
A new crop of faces after the 2016 election could make the difference, he said. “Amendments will always be offered, and we’ll keep getting closer and closer,” he said. “Who knows, maybe we will have Sunday sales by the time the Super Bowl comes here in 2018.”