On Thursday, state lawmakers upheld what’s become an annual tradition in St. Paul: Rejecting a move to lift Minnesota’s ban on Sunday liquor sales.
It happened this year like it almost always does. Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, brought a bill to the House floor to authorize a handful of local liquor licenses, leaving an opening for supporters to offer an amendment lifting the prohibition-era ban on selling booze at liquor retailers on Sundays. After nearly two hours of debate — which included discussions of consumer freedom, the societal costs of drinking and supporting local businesses — the amendment failed on a 56-70 vote.
For Sunday sales supporters, it was the last hope that anything would pass this year. The proposal, which would allow local governments to choose whether liquor stores should be open on Sunday, didn’t get committee hearings in either the House or the Senate. And supporters in the Senate said there was no way they would move on the issue unless the House did. The floor vote was a last-ditch effort to try and mobilize a grassroots movement to change the law.
The situation at the 2016 session for Sunday sales advocates looked grim from the start, given the short, 10-week session and the major issues — bonding, transportation and taxes — consuming most of legislators’ time. Even before session started, the powerful lobbying arm opposing Sunday liquor sales predicted the issue would fail, especially since a lot had been done in 2015, including allowing Sunday growler sales and extending the hours establishments are allowed to start serving alcohol on a Sundays.
Just before the House floor session, however, there was chatter among lobbyists and Capitol regulars that the vote would be close. Yet once the floor session began, the arguments followed familiar lines. One-by-one, House Democrats rose to oppose the proposal, arguing that adding another day of liquor sales would increase societal costs, things like recovery and addiction treatment, and damage from drunk driving accidents.
“The studies are quite conclusive, if you look across the country,” said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. “In places where there is greater access, there are greater alcohol-related crimes.”
Others cited their support of their local liquor stores, many of which are members of a powerful lobbying organization, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA). The MLBA argues that Sunday liquor sales would simply spread six days of sales out over seven and require small retailers to hire more staff to cover the extra hours. That would eventually put them out of business, they say, because big box retailers could absorb that kind of cost.
“That seems to me like a big price for the sake of convenience,” Atkins, who is not returning to the Legislature next year, said. “I don’t think now is the time.”
Not all Democrats in the House were opposed. In all, 16 House DFLers offered their vote in favor of the bill, three more than voted to support Sunday sales as a floor amendment in 2015. “At the end of the day, for me this is about consumer choice,” said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester. “When I want to buy a bottle of wine on Sunday, don’t tell me, ‘Oh you should have bought it on Friday.’ This is America. People should be able to shop on the day they want to shop.”
House Republicans were overwhelmingly supportive of Sunday liquor sales, with 40 total votes in favor. But with several lawmakers from both parties switching sides, the vote total ended up being not all that much different last year, when the amendment failed on a 57-75 vote.
GOP Rep. Tony Cornish was one of the flip votes, moving to support Sunday sales this year. Cornish said that in the past, he had let the arguments of just a few small business owners sway his opinion, when the vast majority of his constituents actually supported Sunday liquor sales.
“I think the moral argument and the business argument and the law enforcement argument are archaic,” said Cornish, R-Vernon Center, a former peace officer. “When you vote green today, think, ‘Hey, Cornish voted green.’”
Republican supporters of the bill made broad arguments of consumer and economic freedom. Behind the scenes, operatives suggested they hoped Sunday liquor sales would be a popular issue with the voters this fall. House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin voted in favor of the bill, with Peppin saying it’s “popular with millennials.”
“This is an issue of freedom, economic freedom, freedom for consumers,” said Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who authored the amendment. “We are one of only a few states with a prohibition of off sale liquor on Sundays.”
After the vote failed, longtime Sunday liquor sales supporter Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, withdrew her own amendment to fully repeal the ban.
Without Sunday liquor sales attached, the omnibus liquor bill, which includes a liquor license for the yet-to-be-constructed St. Paul soccer stadium, passed with overwhelming support.