In contrast to the ambitious agenda sweeping through the DFL-controlled House and Senate, there is one bill with broad public interest that will not even receive a hearing before the Minnesota Legislature: legalizing the sale of wine and strong beer in grocery stores.
The DFL leaders of the two commerce committees with jurisdiction over liquor laws — Sen. Matt Klein and Rep. Zack Stephenson — say they will not hear bills to allow groceries and convenience stores to sell beer and wine.
“We have a number of big issues to talk about this year,” Stephenson said, alluding to other bills he is sponsoring on recreational marijuana and sports betting. “We just had a really significant liquor bill last year. So I don’t expect to do a significant liquor bill this year.”
Klein referenced an agreement among liquor industry players — absent the grocers and convenience stores — that said there would be a five-year moratorium on further changes to liquor law.
Since it’s my first year (as chair), I’m going to honor that agreement for now, for this year in any case,” Klein said. “Historically in Minnesota, the issues around distribution and sales of alcohol are extremely fraught. There are a lot of people with a lot of investment in mom and pop liquor stores, distributors, retailers, Teamsters who deliver the product and everyone has a very strong opinion about how this balance is maintained.
“That said, I’m receptive to the high level of interest that Minnesotans have about this stuff and the desires they have about expanding access to alcohol,” the Mendota Heights DFLer said.
That agreement was controversial in 2022 because it suggested non-legislators were controlling the process. A contract of sorts was leaked that appeared to be holding the industry to a legally enforceable agreement. Stephenson said then the agreement didn’t bind the Legislature. This year, he said it has less to do with his stance on further changes than the routine patterns of legislation.
“Anytime the Legislature takes on a big issue, it usually does not revisit it immediately the following year,” said Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids. “Whether you want to say I’m following the moratorium or just giving it time to breathe, I don’t think we’re going to do a big liquor bill this year.”
There has been a rule of five of late. It was 2011 when the Legislature passed the so-called Surly Bill, named after the brewer, which allowed for the sale of beer on site in taprooms. And it was 2017 when the Legislature finally allowed private and municipal liquor stores to open on Sundays.
Five years after that came the deal between key and formerly warring segments of the alcohol business in Minnesota — the so-called Free the Growler bill — that included an agreement that none of the parties will return to the Legislature to significantly change Minnesota liquor laws for … five years.
Grocery stores were not part of that agreement, nor were their representatives part of the negotiations that led to a law last year that expanded the products and quantities craft brewers and distillers could sell. Liquor stores, many small and owned by families leading to the label “mom and pop stores,” won the requirement that stores be allowed to sell more craft products. But the big gain was the five-year deal. That gave members of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and the municipally owned stores peace of mind that they wouldn’t have to fight against changes such as allowing store owners to have more than one store per municipality and, especially, beer and wine sales in grocery stores.
While that agreement didn’t — and couldn’t — bind legislators, a bill opposed by the craft industry, the liquor stores, the distributors and the Teamsters would have a difficult time passing either chamber.
Not that some lawmakers aren’t trying.
Rep. Kurt Daudt, a Republican from Crown, is the lead sponsor on two measures: House File 574 would legalize the sale of strong beer and wine in groceries and convenience stores, and House File 1848 would place the same issue on the 2024 state ballot. Voters would be asked: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to permit the sale of wine and beer in grocery stores, convenience stores and other food retailers, in a manner prescribed by law?”
“We’re one of only four states that doesn’t allow some version of grocery sales and the only state that still has 3.2 beer,” Daudt said. “It’s time. This is what we do here, we figure out what laws are outdated and we update them, we bring them up to what people’s expectations are.”
Daudt said the constitutional amendment route could allow lawmakers to vote yes as a way of letting voters make the decision. It would also bypass Gov. Tim Walz, as a governor’s signature is not required for a constitutional amendment, just a simple majority of the House and Senate plus a majority of those voting in the 2024 general election.
“If the voters vote for it, then it’s in the constitution,” he said.
Describing what grocery stores can sell via the constitution might sound odd, both alcohol Prohibition in 1919 and the lifting of that ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol in 1933 were both done via amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
As to the so-called “peace in the valley” deal last session and the informal moratorium on major changes, Daudt said he thought it was “pretty bad form” and something he’d not seen in his seven terms in the House.
“This is going to happen eventually,” Daudt said of grocery sales of wine and strong beer. “They’re not going to be able to hold it off forever. “Probably not this year. But I don’t think it’s going to be five years from now. I would say in the next two-to-three years it changes.”
Currently, grocery and convenience stores can sell beer, but it can only have lower-alcohol content: 3.2 percent alcohol by weight or 4 percent alcohol by volume. Minnesota is the last state that has laws that create a need for 3.2 beer. In addition, grocery stores can apply for liquor store licenses and many do. The licensed beverage group estimates there are 210 grocery stores, including many of the large grocery chains, that have liquor stores. By law, they must be separate from the grocery store and are limited to having only one within any local jurisdiction.
“These liquor stores have proved that no new laws are needed that would greatly increase the number of outlets for alcohol in Minnesota,” the association says in its opposition paper.