As much as it makes sense, Sunday liquor is a tough sell

  • Article by: ERIC WIEFFERING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2011 - 9:52 PM

For newly legal drinkers in Massachusetts, a Sunday drive to Pelham, N.H., to buy beer from a state-owned "packie" was, in the regional vernacular of my youth, a wicked pain.

So I know how Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, felt last Sunday when he had to make a beer run to Superior, Wis., to avoid the embarrassment of showing up for a Super Bowl party empty-handed.

"I can guarantee you that tax dollars are being lost to Wisconsin, because some of them are mine," Reinert said Thursday.

Reinert wants Minnesota to allow retail liquor stores to open on Sunday. It makes sense, he said, because a majority of states already do so, including all the states on Minnesota's border (and Manitoba, if you're really desperate).

Reinert's bill won't do what some of its loudest advocates claim -- flood the state treasury with new tax revenue. But it's a sensible, consumer-friendly measure that recognizes that the times and society have changed, that in two-earner families it's not always easy to cram all your shopping into one day.

Still, that may not be enough to protect it from certain doom.

Frank Ball says Minnesota's liquor retailers enjoy their day of rest. Ball is executive director of the powerful Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, which represents 6,000 bars, restaurants and liquor stores that serve or sell alcohol in Minnesota. Since 2000, the MLBA has beaten back at least five efforts to allow wine sales in grocery stores.

Sunday sales would be a losing proposition for most of his members, Ball said, because they would incur additional costs for opening and operating on Sunday with little increase in sales. "It would mean spreading six days of sales over seven," he said.

This is not a perspective peculiar to Minnesota liquor retailers. Retail liquor sales vary from state to state and city to city, so the industry is made up largely of small, locally owned operators who don't have to worry about national chain stores. No matter the state, the fiercest opposition to Sunday sales comes from the liquor retailers themselves.

A 2006 report by the Legislative Auditor concluded that Minnesota restricts retail competition in the liquor business more than most states. In Minnesota, liquor retailers worry that allowing Sunday sales eventually opens the door to their worst nightmare: wine and eventually strong beer sales in grocery stores.

Here's how that scenario would play out: Liquor retailers open on Sunday, and convenience and grocery stores experience a sharp drop-off in sales of 3.2 beer. In the name of fairness, convenience stores win the right to sell full-strength beer. Ditto for grocery stores and wine.

"That would kill us," said Bruce Knowlan, who owns five liquor stores including Top Ten Wine & Spirits in Woodbury. "Half the liquor stores in town would fold if grocery stores were allowed to sell."

Before dismissing these concerns as fanciful paranoia, consider what has happened in Colorado. In 2008, the state's liquor retailers agreed to open on Sundays in hopes of heading off a companion bill that would allow beer sales in grocery and convenience stores. The reprieve was short-lived. Colorado's grocery store lobby submitted a measure in 2010 and has announced its intent to do so again this year.

"Being open on Sunday hasn't helped my business, and we haven't stopped grocery stores from wanting to sell," said Lee Earnhart, owner of Chambers Wine and Liquor in Aurora, Colo.

Meanwhile, Colorado has seen little in the way of new tax revenue from Sunday sales. That's also the case in Massachusetts, where Sunday sales have been legal since 2004.

The Minnesota Grocers Association had no input on Reinert's bill, but president Jamie Puhl says her organization supports the measure. "We're not lobbying for it," she said, "but we know that consumers want this."

So does John Wolf, owner of Chicago Lake Liquors. Wolf split with the MLBA because of differences over extended hours and other issues, and he's even hired his own lobbyist to help push Reinert's measure.

Liquor stores in Minnesota are allowed to be open on Labor Day, July 4 and other holidays, Wolf notes, but many opt to close. Those who don't like the idea of working Sunday can make a similar choice, he said.

"I believe in making it convenient for people to shop when they want to shop," he said. "But no one says you have to be open."

Reinert hopes to schedule hearings in the near future but says he already has strong bipartisan support from other members of the commerce committee, as well as constituents.

"I haven't ever carried a bill that has generated this much broad interest and support," he said. "It really reaches down to folks who maybe otherwise don't plug into politics that closely."

ericw@startribune.com • 612-673-1736

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