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Sunday (ban) coming down? Bill to scrap liquor sales law passes key committee at Legislature

It was the first committee vote on the issue in years — and one that represented a major shift in the Sunday liquor sales debate at the Capitol.

Tony Chesak knew the outcome was inevitable.

As the head of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, he’s spent years telling legislators why they should keep Minnesota's ban on Sunday liquor store sales — that the small liquor stores he represents are worried about big box retailers and the cost-benefit of staffing an extra day of sales. And, year after year, Chesak has been successful, with legislators repeatedly defeating any attempts to lift the ban.

This year is different. There’s been a big shift since the election, and Chesak knew it. “The last time there was a Sunday sales hearing in this committee, five of these small business owners were here to testify and more were in the audience,” he told members of the House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee on Tuesday. “Today is different. We all understand what the outcome of the vote today is going to be.”

Not long after, the committee voted 15-4 to pass Sunday liquor sales and send the issue directly to the House floor. It was the first committee vote on the issue in years — and one that represented a major shift in the Sunday liquor sales debate at the Capitol. In addition to a few new freshman legislators voting yes, a handful of Democrats on the committee switched from opponents to supporters, as did the Republican chairman of the committee, Joe Hoppe.

Proponents of Sunday liquor sales say the committee vote is a just a small slice of what’s happening across the Legislature: Those who once cast ‘no’ votes are slowly shifting to ‘yes,’ and many of the new freshman legislators are more inclined to support repealing the ban.

Minnesota is currently one of 11 states that bans liquor stores from selling booze on Sundays, and the idea of scrapping the provision is incredibly popular with the public. Even so, the debate is more complicated in St. Paul. A powerful lobbying team — including Chesak’s MLBA, municipal liquor stores and the Teamsters Union — have long opposed any effort to change the law. And legislators from both parties have voted against Sunday liquor sales for a variety of reasons, from religious beliefs to the societal costs of drinking.

But the public became more active in the debate over the last two years, largely via social media, sending out petitions and tweeting at legislators that they want them to lift the ban. “We’ve had close to 10,000 Minnesota voters sign up saying they’d like to see this change happen,” said Andrew Schmitt, executive director of the Minnesota Beer Activists, which has petitioned to lift the ban.

State Rep. Jenifer Loon
State Rep. Jenifer Loon

The bill voted on Tuesday, authored by Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, included some changes she hopes will appeal to opponents. An amendment to the bill would only allow liquor stores to be open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Sunday (liquor stores can remain open until 10 p.m. any other day of the week). And no liquor deliveries would be allowed on Sunday, a concern for the Teamsters Union. If passed, Minnesotans could buy liquor from stores on a Sunday as soon as July 2.

But opponents of the proposal said they’re not giving up yet. “Our organization will continue to fight for the little guy, for the small family-owned business that owns and operates bars and liquor stores throughout Minnesota,” Chesak said. 

“Experience in other states suggests that very soon grocery stores, and other big box retailers, as well as convenience stores who currently sell 3.2 percent beer, are likely to be at your doors urging you to allow them to sell beer at strengths greater than 3.2 percent,” he said.

The proposal hasn’t had a successful hearing in the Senate in several years, but new Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he’s reserving judgment on the issue for now. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt has emerged as the biggest proponent of lifting the ban, co-sponsoring Loon’s bill and telling reporters he’d like to have it passed out of the House sometime in January. If the bill makes it to his desk, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will not veto the measure.

Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, is one of the legislators who flipped from a no vote to a yes on Tuesday, but she said she’s still concerned about the effect on small liquor stores. “If you’ve got the opportunity to go shopping on a Sunday, I want to be sure that you aren’t driving by your small businesses,” she said. “Don’t leave our small businesses behind.” 

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Comments (15)

Government picking winners and losers in retail

Why favor the small liquor stores instead of the big-box retailers? The answer is probably because of municipal liquor stores. If the municipal liquor stores lose business they will have to raise that money through other taxes.

My 2¢

A life-long teetotaler, I don't have a dog in this fight, except indirectly, as does anyone who's ever thought about the possibility that they might be hit by a drunk driver. That's not a trivial concern, by any means, but we have ample historical evidence – I've said this before in MinnPost commentary – that prohibition simply does not work.

I do understand the concerns of small liquor store owners, and of teamsters, but change is always difficult – as we're about to discover after January 20 – and if thousands of Minnesotans are signing petitions to do away with the prohibition, legislators, whether they like the proposal or not, are going to be inclined to listen. I won't be surprised to see Minnesota eventually become like Missouri, where – decades ago – one could go to the big-box grocery store on Sunday and purchase just about any liquor that was available. Yes, that will mean some of the mom-and-pop liquor stores will go out of business, and if they want to stay in that industry, the owners will find themselves employees rather than owners, and employees will find themselves working for a bigger, and likely less friendly, company. Corporations are like that.

Alcohol does at least as much damage to individuals and society at large as do the rest of the spectrum of consciousness-altering substances that legislators – often the same ones who think alcohol is OK – have consistently voted to make illegal, thus providing plenty of funding for police departments and prosecutor's offices. Toss in the fact that some municipalities own and operate their own liquor stores, and you have cities literally working against themselves – selling an addictive substance for profit, while having to spend a substantial portion of that profit for police services when people overindulge or become addicted. It's a tangled web, but year after year of "the war on drugs" has proved both expensive and ineffectual. I'll say it again: prohibition doesn't work.

Another factor – here I'll depart from the mainstream – is that, in my view, the mom-and-pop liquor store owner is not notably better – though usually no worse – than the guy selling cocaine out of the back of his car or the place where he lives, or growing marijuana in his basement. One major exception to that statement is that the store owner (usually) pays taxes on sales and inventory, which help defray the costs of the social services his products make more necessary. That's not a trivial item, either, but it doesn't negate my first sentence. Opioids are becoming increasingly common, or at least are getting more media attention lately, and overdoses are increasingly frequent, but the number of lives lost to opioid overdoses is very small compared to the number of lives lost to drunken drivers, and I don't know of any credible instances of marijuana users becoming violently aggressive, as drunks often are.

I don't like drug use, and I'd prefer that no one use them in any form, including alcohol, but – once again – prohibition does not work, so the totally sober society that I'd like to see is not going to happen in my lifetime, or ever. Complete sobriety has not been the case in human societies since consciousness-altering substances were first discovered by our Paleolithic ancestors. They had, and we will continue to have, problems associated with the use of those substances. C'est la vie. Some people are more inclined – genetically, emotionally, physiologically – toward addiction, while others are not. If we're going to allow alcohol sales on six days of the week, there's no logical reason not to allow those sales on seven days of the week. Those inclined to label drug use as "immoral" while conversing over a beer or cocktail at a local happy hour, or their after-dinner glass of wine, are, whether they like it or not, ethically incoherent.

Strictly from a drunk driving

Strictly from a drunk driving standpoint, I think Sunday sales will help. Feel free to contradict, but I think most (not all certainly, but most) drunk driving is from bar patrons and Sunday sales might reduce that.

You can overindulge in a private home too, but it's easier to wait and sober up in a home rather than a bar.

Nice Piece Ray

Agreed, Prohibition is nothing more than a failure to face reality, a choice to try and control other peoples lives against their personal desires.
I still don't understand why a big box has an advantage over mom and pop? Someone needs to explain that to me. Folks on site are folks on site, suspect mom and pop got kids, relation etc, that will work for less than the big box folks. Same could be said for Gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants, etc.

Big Box vs Mom and Pop

The theory about why Sunday sales would hurt small businesses relies on the idea that people will not purchase more alcohol. There will be the same amount of sales, but spread over more days. So, there will be no increase of revenue to cover the additional staff costs. Big stores, in particular chains, can absorb those additional costs more easily that small ones. If small stores chose not to be open, people will go to the big stores. That argument rests on people not purchasing more alcohol. If people buy their usual amount on Saturday and then buy more on Sunday than, theoretically, sales should increase to cover costs.

Mom and Pop

That is indeed the explanation. And it's absurd. It has nothing to do with the regulation of alcohol and everything to do with economic protectionism.

I stopped shopping at my local mom and pop a few years ago and make the trip to Total Wine out of principle.

Same here

I am a strong proponent of small, local businesses. I make an exception with regard to alcohol. Total Wine has it all over ma & pa venues. Cleaner, cheaper, more helpful employees. Often in the small stores, you will find dusty, outdated wine bottles, and slovenly clerks. Of course, there are exceptions.

Why are municipalities in this business, anyway? Admittedly, I am not a business person , but I don't get it. I am from Ohio, and you can pick up your wine in the grocery stores there. Less running around.

If the small stores can't cut it, perhaps they should go into another line of business. A good business person knows when they are defeated.

Municipalities

should not be in the liquor business. Far too many of them are money losers for the community.

Overgeneralization

Under law, any city losing money on a liquor operation more than as a one-off year is required to examine the facts, hold public hearings, and in some cases votes on whether to continue in the business. No cities lose money on liquor sales long-term, unless their citizens feel it is a public good to do so.

I don't particularly like that my city has a muni, but that is the only thing the state allows us to do to earn a profit to offset taxes. When we last asked our citizens if they would rather continue in the liquor business, or swallow a substantial property tax increase, it wasn't even close. But if our liquor operations should start costing tax dollars rather than reducing the need for them, the liquor store will be closed quickly.

Alcoholism

Out of 50 states, Minnesota has the second highest number of alcoholics.

What's your point?

If your statistic is true, then clearly banning liquor sales on Sunday hasn't stopped people from getting access to alcohol.

An alcoholic will find a way to get alcohol if he/she wants it. If liquor stores aren't open on Sunday, people can go to restaurants/bars and order drinks. I don't see how changing this law is going to change the number of alcoholics in Minnesota.

Careful with statistics

This is a made-up statistic. It's hard enough even to define what constitutes an "alcoholic" let alone actually survey people about it. If this is about binge drinking, which can be surveyed, the CDC ranks Minnesota #7, behind our neighbors North Dakota (#1) and Wisconsin (#2). If this is about alcohol consumption in general, CDC ranks Minnesota #3. On the other hand, a 2014 article on the "Drunkest States" doesn't even list us in the top 10:

https://www.thestreet.com/story/12119523/1/the-drunkest-states-in-americ...

Still more: CDC ranks MN 30th in rate of cirrhosis.The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also ranks MN relative low in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

Booze is a terrible agent of destruction for some people, but not for most people. As has already pointed out, the alcoholic will not let Sunday sales bans stop them from finding their drinks. This is an commerce issue, not one of public health.

Sunday sales

The vast majority of Minnesotans can already by liquor on Sundays. For them it is a short drive to nearest state line. Might as well keep the money in state.

Sunday Sales

How about looking at Sunday sales for cars. Get real car dealers and admit that you are a RETAIL operation. Join the rest of the retail world. Target busted the Blue laws to sell lots of stuff on Sundays way back in the sixies. Why can't I buy a car on a Sunday?

Tempest in a teapot

This whole Sunday ban seems so ridiculous to me. I lived in California for about 40 years, and there, every supermarket carries beer, wine and spirits, which can be purchased every day of the week except between the hours of 2AM and 6AM. Minnesota's nanny attitude toward this mystifies me.