New faces at Capitol give hope to those pushing an old issue: overturning Minnesota’s ban on Sunday liquor sales

REUTERS/John Sommers II
Both sides of the Sunday sales issue are surveying the new makeup of the Legislature to see where the votes could land.

Andrew Schmitt decided to be proactive this election cycle.

Schmitt is the executive director of the Minnesota Beer Activists, a lobbying group that’s pushed legislators to peel back Minnesota’s Depression-era liquor laws over the last few years. They’ve had some successes, most notably a law that made way for the craft brewery and distillery boom across the state.

But their top issue, repealing Minnesota’s longstanding ban on Sunday sales at liquor stores, has failed repeatedly when put up for a vote in St. Paul.

So ahead of the fall election, Schmitt sent out a survey to every candidate running for the Minnesota Legislature to see where they stood on the Sunday liquor ban. Schmitt didn’t get a response back from everyone, but the ones he did get back were encouraging, with new candidates being much more open to lifting the ban.

Now, heading into the 2017 session, which will convene just after the start of the new year, both sides of the Sunday sales issue are surveying the new makeup of the Legislature to see where the votes could land. In all, there will be 21 new state senators and 23 new House members in the 201-seat Legislature when session convenes — more than enough votes to swing the issue.

“It would be very premature to say that [we have the votes],” Schmitt said. “But there is a lot of new blood, which is good.”

Attitudes changing?

Repealing the ban on Sunday liquor sales is incredibly popular with the public, but things get complicated when the debate enters the halls of the state Capitol. Powerful lobbying forces have long pushed against the repeal, and over the years, they’ve been successful.

Andrew Schmitt
Andrew Schmitt

Leading the anti-repeal effort is the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA), which represents dozens of small independent liquor stores around the state. They argue that Sunday sales will simply spread the same revenues over a seventh day of operation while costing more for staffing, a move that will benefit big box retailers at the expense of small mom and pop shops. The Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association, which represents city and local government operated liquor stores, also opposes Sunday sales, saying 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.

“Over the past several years at the state Legislature, we’ve seen a growing movement from out-of-state corporations to try to deregulate the liquor industry in Minnesota and dismantle our proven system,” Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association executive director Tony Chesak said in a statement. “Deregulating liquor — including allowing additional off-sale on Sundays — will have serious repercussions for small businesses, local communities, and consumers and disproportionately benefit big box retailers.”

For legislators, the reasons to vote no on Sunday liquor sales are all over the place, from religious beliefs to concerns over the health and societal costs of drinking. Some lawmakers argue they simply have more important things to work on, so they side with their local private and municipal liquor stores.

But attitudes, and votes, have been shifting, especially as groups like the beer activists have gotten more involved in the debate — mostly through social media channels.

In 2013, for example, a Sunday sales amendment failed in the House overwhelmingly, by a vote of 21-106. In 2015, though, the House vote was 57-75 against a repeal, meaning supporters more than doubled “yes” votes. In 2016, during a historically short legislative session when other big issues were also on the table, Sunday sales failed again in the House, this time on a 56-70 vote.

The Senate has been trending toward Sunday sales, too. In 2014, the Senate rejected Sunday sales on a 22-42 vote. In 2015, the Senate vote was closer, with a Sunday sales amendment going down 28-35. (The Senate didn’t vote on the issue during the 2016 session.)

New members, new votes

There are a lot more unknowns heading into 2017. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, who did not return requests for comment, has been a vocal supporter of Sunday liquor sales in the past, and Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would sign a bill repealing the Sunday liquor sales ban if it ever made it to his desk. But the new Senate Majority Leader, Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa,  has consistently voted against the measure.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka

Over the years, moreover, Sunday liquor sales has struggled to get a full hearing in the House and Senate commerce committees, which has forced supporters to offer it as an amendment to larger, so-called omnibus liquor bills when they come up for a vote on the House and Senate floors. The chairs of those commerce committees, Rep. Joe Hoppe and newly-appointed Sen. Gary Dahms, have both voted against the issue. Neither of the chairs could be reached for comment.

Using Schmitt’s election survey and past votes, there are currently 21 senators who support Sunday liquor sales, 31 who do not, and 15 members whose position is unknown. A bill or amendment needs 34 votes to pass in the Senate. In the House, there are 55 definite supporters of Sunday liquor sales, according to the survey, and 57 opponents. But there are 22 people with unknown positions, meaning there’s room for supporters to get to the 68 votes needed to pass. 

“Members who have been here for a long time have taken those votes repeatedly. That’s difficult to break from for some people. Now we have new members who are coming in with a fresh look on things and have a fresh perspective on what people in their districts want,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who has offered a Sunday liquor sales amendment several years in a row. “It was only four years ago when I was bringing this up as an amendment on the House floor and I had people urging me not to bring because it’s a dead issue.”

But anti-Sunday sales forces are also gearing up to push against the issue, and they anticipate a status-quo session, particularly with bigger issues on the table, like crafting a $42 billion budget. 

State Rep. Steve Drazkowski
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
State Rep. Steve Drazkowski

“The MLBA believes our current system works for Minnesotans and opposes major changes that will simply disrupt a system that is serving consumers well,” the MLBA’s Chesak added. “As the legislative session moves forward, we’re going to continue to be active at the Capitol again this year supporting our members and anticipate  that we will be successful yet again.”

But Schmitt remains hopeful going into the 2017 session. Republicans have tried over the years to claim the populist Sunday liquor sales issue as their own, and the even debated adding it to the official party platform. And after the 2016 election, which sent many lawmakers packing who were considered “establishment,” or to close to special interest groups, repealing old rules should look a lot more appealing.

“There’s definitely momentum building, but a lot remains to be seen with leadership in the Senate,” he said. “Things are trending our way, but how soon?”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 12/07/2016 - 11:28 am.

    MNsure

    Let’s hope that besides seeing the budget as a high priority, legislators also see acting on MNsure as a high priority. At least higher that acting on Sunday liquor sales.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/07/2016 - 12:17 pm.

      Bills

      They should be able to work on more than one bill or issue at a time. Repealing blue laws should take very little time, effort, or debate.

  2. Submitted by Pat Berg on 12/07/2016 - 11:56 am.

    Sunday car sales

    Briana, can you also look into the prospects for enabling Sunday car sales in Minnesota?

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/07/2016 - 01:42 pm.

    Blue laws

    …are vestiges of our Puritan past, and ought to be consigned to the appropriate historical dustbin.

    Objections to Sunday liquor sales from various interest groups are largely true (probably higher costs for mom-and-pop stores, probably favors big-box stores, probably means lower tax revenues for local government-owned stores, and also, probably higher health and social costs due to increased availability), but raise what seems to me to be a central and quite worthwhile question. If, as the article states, the general public is very much in favor of Sunday sales, while the legislature has consistently voted against Sunday sales, is the job of the legislator to represent all the people of her/his legislative district, or to represent the position(s) of a relative few who are members of a few organized interest groups?

    I’m a teetotaler myself, and regard liquor stores as the practical (but eminently legal) equivalent of a storefront heroin dealer, with the clerk behind the cash register the moral equivalent of the guy on the street corner in that disreputable neighborhood, the one from whom some people buy those little plastic bags of white powder. My views on this hardly matter, however. What does matter is that we have plenty of historical evidence, centuries of it, actually, that plainly shows us that prohibition does not work. A public that wants booze is going to get booze, either legally by driving to Wisconsin, illegally by getting it from some back-door operation, or perhaps even more dangerous, legally by “stocking up” on Friday or Saturday before the store closes for Sunday Prohibition Day.

    None of those possibilities seem to me preferable to simply allowing liquor stores to be open on Sunday if their owners wish to do so. To my knowledge, no one will be holding a gun to the head of liquor store customers, forcing them to stop in for a 6-pack or a couple bottles of (your choice of liquor here). It should also be noted that those who champion a “free market” cannot, in good conscience, allow the gubmint to restrict that same “free market” by arbitrarily eliminating a day of business, largely for unstated, but genuine, religious reasons.

  4. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 12/07/2016 - 04:28 pm.

    Blue Law Blues

    Blue Laws are unconstitutional. They put the State into the Religion business, by putting the principles of one sect of one religion into law, thereby discriminating against other sects, religions and non-believers. In the first place, the law is incorrectly identifying Sunday as the Sabbath, when it is Friday-Saturday sundown-to-sundown. It prevents Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Aliens, anybody from buying wine or liquor on Sundays, and forces those who are Sabbath-observant to have to buy liquor during the week only. If some stores don’t want to be open on Sundays, they don’t have to be. There’s simply no excuse for these laws to stay on the books. Otherwise, they have to be extended to include marijuana sales and other drugs, if they are being considered equal (though they are not).

  5. Submitted by Colleen Hollinger on 12/07/2016 - 07:54 pm.

    Plan Ahead!

    This topic of Blue Laws in Mn is exhausted. There are so many more important issues for our legislators to spend time and money on. People, we just need to plan ahead by one day each week if your wine cellar is looking thin. Really. I don’t care one way or another about the Sun sales, but I do care about this colossal waste of ink space, breath, and time. Can we just accept that MN is quirky and you have to buy your liquor Mon through Sat.?Let’s move on to issues that actually make a difference. I vote for a five year moratorium on the Blue Law issue!

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/07/2016 - 09:21 pm.

    Just do it

    Did anyone notice that saying that sales will not go up and people will drink more if liquor stores are open on Sundays are two mutually exclusive problems? Sure, this is not the most important problem facing Minnesota but it is also a no-brainer: if most people want to have the stores open on Sunday, allow them to be open.

  7. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 12/07/2016 - 09:37 pm.

    It’s a misnomer to call them “Blue Laws”

    Sure, at one point in time, they were. But – at least as far as liquor and car sales – it’s less about religious objections and more about economic objectives. The objection to Sunday sales comes from organizations who feel it will increase cost without a commensurate increase in revenue. They’re probably right (except near the WI border) but does that justify government making the decision?

    Let’s flip the argument around. If the legislature proposed banning both Saturday and Sunday sales, could you imagine the hue and cry from these same organizations?

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/08/2016 - 01:01 pm.

      Sales Objections

      I add a couple more points whenever someone raises objections to Sunday sales.

      1. If stores want all the benefits of without all the expense of an added day of sales, all they have to do is pick the day of their weakest sales and close. Their wage costs stay the same and the benefit from the revenue of a higher sales day (Sunday) while ditching a lower sales day, whichever that may be.

      2. Repealing the blue law doesn’t force stores to be open–it simply gives them the option. If they want to remain closed on Sundays they can do so.

      3. If closing one day a week is such a boon to businesses, then perhaps we should require all businesses to close one day a week.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/08/2016 - 06:57 am.

    Caring

    I see this as an asymmetry of caring issue. Customers may want to buy liquor on Sunday, but they don’t care about it very much. Liquor store owners, much fewer in number, like Sunday closing and they care about it very much. Which faction should decide? Which interest should prevail?

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/08/2016 - 12:55 pm.

      Sales Objective

      That’s an easy question to answer. When an issue comes down to serving people or serving business, the legislature should come down on the side of people. After all, does the preamble say “we, the people” or “we, the limited liability corporation”?

  9. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 12/13/2016 - 02:29 pm.

    It doesn’t matter…

    …whether its a seemingly insignificant issue or one affecting Minnesota’s long-term financial stability-recent legislatures and governors have proven themselves unable to address much less resolve such items. From sexual offender treatment centers to marijuana legalization, from pending budget crises related to public employees pensions and healthcare to liquor sales on Sunday-there’s some special (or public) interest group that’s been making money off this for years and has long had a monopoly on the inclinations and leanings of the capital inhabitants (lifers) Don’t look for anything to change soon. Sorry.

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